Friday, 11 November 2016

Our fleeting Bach is under sail…

This review (of the same programme performed on successive days) is dedicated to leading light – and all-round nice guy – Hugh ‘Miles’ Davies (above): trumpeter supreme; and, it turns, out, Orchestra of the Swan’s answer to Tim Vine. He may have played less than a hundred notes during each of the two concerts: but, suffering, as he is, from chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), every single one of those notes was worth its weight in gold; and was as hard-earned, and as shimmeringly transcendent, as moondust.

So, if you would like to make a donation to the Fountain Centre – an independent charity located in the St Luke’s cancer unit at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford – which is supporting Hugh (and many others): please click here. Thank you.

A thickset man, with penetrating eyes, wearing a powdered wig, and with a viola da gamba and bow under his arm, walks into the local Brandenburgher joint, and stares at the gaudily-lit menu: “I’ll have ein Big Bach, bitte; mit special pizzazz; ein huge Klumpen of momentum; und ein extra-großer bucket of sizzle… – oh, und a Stein of sparkling virtuosity!”
     “To eat in; or to go…?”
     “Ach: to go, danke! To go mit a bang…!”

There are some performances (I have now declared) that should not be gauged by the number of tears shed (one of the usual Bardic measures, of course); nor by the charisma or technique of the soloists; or even the astonishing dedication and musicality of the players and composers involved – all of which can be presupposed when the Orchestra of the Swan are involved… – but, instead, should be judged by the sheer cumulative dynamism that is required to create and perform them, to bring them to life. (Fulfilment of, or success in, all of those other factors, listed above, will be achieved, anyway, as a natural consequence….) Such an attribute (particularly concerning OOTS) probably comes somewhere around the Richter and Beaufort scales in intensity; is directly proportional to the square-root of the enjoyment meted out and received; and, I think – after witnessing this programme’s non-stop sequence of marvels (and, remember, twice in two days…) – must be christened the Le Page Scale of Wonderment.

The concert in question thus turned out to be as perfect in reality for the audience as it had looked, theoretically, on paper – revolving, as it did, around the timelessness and genius of one man: Johann Sebastian Bach. And yet, because of the demands it placed on OOTS – specifically in the “dynamism” department (a challenge which seemed simply to provoke in them a constant stream of delight!) – I don’t think it hyperbole to suggest that this programme would have been a nightmare for many other ensembles. There was nowhere to hide from first stunning note to last; and it was a test not only of stamina but of technique. [I was half expecting personal trainers to come on at the interval with towels and buckets of ice; and perhaps even a massage table or two. And then, of course, for Maestro Curtis to deploy a few reserves from the substitutes’ bench. But no such wussiness for this lot! All we had – eventually… – was a change of conductor’s strip.]

Oh, by the way, that “stream of delight” did not spring into existence simply because OOTS made it through to the end, each time; but emanated from the challenge, the music, itself – it emerged from the making of it: and so downright gloriously. [A day later, and I’m still trying to work out how they crammed all this in to a matter of a few seconds, though. I honestly do not remember a concert flying by so quickly – and both times – without a single momentary waning of interest, or moment to draw breath. This was music – both in print and in performance – that you could easily get high on. (And I did.)]

For their 21st Anniversary season, the Orchestra of the Swan have commissioned four composers to write “companion works” to existing ‘concertante’ pieces – principals as soloists being a great way to demonstrate the astounding depth and breadth of this sensational band’s instrumental talent; as well as showing us (just in case we needed reminding… – and we really shouldn’t…) what wonderful music continues to be written for chamber orchestra.

I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.

The first of these works is Douglas J Cuomo’s (above) Objects In Mirror – which immediately followed the Bach that inspired it: his second Brandenburg Concerto – thereby showcasing leader David Le Page; flautist Diane Clark; oboist Victoria Brawn; David Ponsford on harpsichord; and trumpeters Hugh (for the Cuomo) and Jonathan Clarke (for the Bach). [Although Hugh obviously isn’t very well at the moment, the solo part in Objects In Mirror was written specifically for him: so he travelled up to the Midlands for his sixty-three bars of fame – a demonstration of great fortitude and dedication (he even donated his fees to the Fountain Centre) – as well as some of the greatest “very expansively throughout, with a jazz-like sense of phrasing” horn-blowing, this side of Birth of the Cool. This was playing measured in teardrops: utter beauty; perfection of phrase; and, somehow, an utterly fitting demonstration of the man’s talent and current frailty.]

As (also) befits the themed programme, this is a work that looks pretty challenging on paper – for both soloists and orchestra (concertino and ripieno…) – but everyone involved was obviously having great fun, despite having to concentrate so hard: resulting not only in the habitual happiness glowing from the players’ faces, but OOTS at the very top of their already-supreme game.

Even after studying the score in advance, and discussing it briefly with the composer, what I think surprised me – perhaps having now reflected on the concert through the prism of the final Stravinsky – is how well the almost intangible allusions to Bach, and the specific work that inspired this, shine through. This was helped, firstly, by attending rehearsals; but mostly by a neat little off-the-cuff demonstration from David and the orchestra: highlighting certain themes and ideas – and, consequently, probably reducing the almost palpable fear in the audience that seems to creep in under the doors like a fetid pea-souper every time the words “new work” or “commission” are mentioned….

These “allusions” are perhaps not as blatant as with Dumbarton Oaks (which ended the concert): Cuomo’s work has very little of the neo-classicism that so imbues the earlier tribute… – but they are definitely there: although, I have to admit, without David’s canny masterclass, most would probably have crept up on us unawares; or maybe even passed us by subconsciously.

The work opens with the wonderfully-named Elliptical Sewing Machine. Possibly the most ‘American’ sounding of the three movements – apart from the interpolation of the harpsichord, perhaps… – this was, in places, quite irresistibly funky! Full of joie de vivre – and demonstrating that eighteenth-century instrumentation can still be relevant and valid – this was rapturous stuff; and utterly mesmerizing. There was precise, awesome playing from all involved – and with great heart, too – stitching together some brilliant clothing with that “off-kilter” device!

In the Bach, the trumpet plays very virtuosically, fast and high, in the first and third movements; and is tacet for the second. I flipped that around – silent in the first and last; and playing medium- and even low-register, with long-held notes, in the central one. I discussed this with Hugh… because I wanted to give him something that allowed him to really show off as a soloist – but in the opposite way (again) to that which Bach did. It was also a practical consideration: the plan being to play the Bach first… – after which your chops really need a rest!

Hugh’s moment in the sun – simply Ballad – was the perfect love song: a beautiful distraction from worldly concerns (and, for the first performance, the awful weather outside). As Cuomo says above – and after the intense drive of the opening movement – this was balm indeed. If the first movement reminded me somewhat of the hustle and bustle of a great city; then this one left that metropolis far, far behind. Even Copland’s Quiet City was nowhere to be seen. This was a luscious dreamscape; a thoughtful wander: if not through our own (or the composer’s) innermost thoughts, through the mists – of time; of a country dawn; of history… – with just fleeting remembrances of the urban jitteriness we had left behind. [That this suited Hugh – that it suited Hugh’s present life – so perfectly, simply rendered it even more poignant: a prolonged sigh for what had been… – but with deep optimism for the future. (And anyone who tells me that you can’t be sad whilst listening to jazz, hasn’t heard Hugh and his harmon mute – surely one of the sexiest instrumental sounds ever devised (albeit with a tendency toward the mournful) – and certainly has not listened to enough jazz!)]

Of course, David (Le Page), Diane and Victoria were Hugh’s high equals: wrapping a comforting quilt of extended lyricism and warmth around him; and with some wonderful echoing friendly interjections and accompaniments. Those final six notes, though – “very freely” – trumpet not quite silent, creeping away over cellos and basses – will stay with me for ever. (Simply glancing at the score now provokes a flood of those tears: the emotion utterly concrete.)

There was more astonishing playing in the final movement’s cadenzas: from David – almost gypsy-like, with earthy passion and his own spellbinding brand of thoughtful virtuosity in every note – Diane: a sweet, sweet bird, growing ever more argumentative; and – immediately following a wonderful, almost Haydnesque, climactic false-ending – Victoria: gentle ardour and authority with every breath; and proof that a reasoned argument will always win the day… (musically, if not politically) – before the door finally, convincingly slammed shut!

[If the central Ballad and final Squabble felt a little truncated, it was only because Cuomo had set himself the (daunting) challenge of writing a piece of exactly the same length – bar-wise – as the Bach. I could quite happily have had them play on for much, much longer, though! (Which is why, of course, I went back for more, the next day.)]

This is a cracking work: the perfect foil to the Bach that inspired it; and it deserves to become a commonplace pairing, as is the Stravinsky with the third Brandenburg. (New works can sometimes tarnish, it has to be said – but that mostly stems from lack of performance; and music is written only, truly, for performance – it only exists in performance. Like an unread book, or a painting kept in a deep, dark vault, we do a disservice to living composers – especially ones of this calibre – by not building their works into the repertoire so that they become, well, not routine… – but that their ‘airing’ becomes the rule, rather than the exception.)

The concert had opened with Steve Martland’s stupendous (“arrangement” isn’t really a strong enough word, here: so let’s say…) reimagining of Bach’s legendary Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I have raved on these pages before about this “utterly original – and as crisp and fresh as a newly-plucked grape” work, and how it so suits OOTS’ transcendent strings. But it bears repeating. It bears repeating.

This is not any kind of traditional gentle warm-up music, by any stretch of the imagination (or biceps): more a way of instantly demonstrating the high levels of energy, precision and passion (the three axes, perhaps, of the Le Page Scale…?) that would be sustained throughout the evening. Never waning; always astonishing… – pushing you hard back in your seat from the get-go.

And then the second Brandenburg – which also never fails to sound astoundingly fresh – and, yes, there are (officially) four soloists: but this is really a demonstration piece for the trumpeter; and one of the most difficult works in the repertoire. And, yes, it was sad that Hugh doesn’t currently have the “chops” to show what he is capable of – but the generosity and comradeship he and Jonathan Clarke (not a substitute, but an equal…) showed each other (these aren’t just superhumans, you know: they are also some of the nicest people you could ever meet…) just goes to demonstrate another of OOTS’ disarming – and possibly infinite – array of (possibly unique) strengths.

There aren’t many who could fill Hugh’s shoes: but Jonathan blasted the roof off with his opening ascent – and that trill…! Just wow. In the ArtsHouse – where just moving along a couple of seats can completely change the acoustic – sometimes it was hard to separate the soloists; but in Birmingham Town Hall, each line was stunningly clear and perfectly interwoven. I just closed my eyes, and let the staves, dots and lines dance before me, ebbing and flowing, ascending and descending. All four were simply mesmerising… – and, although I was tempted to give the honour to Mr Le Page (below), in the end, performer of the night (and then day) simply had to go to Jonathan: for all sorts of brilliant reasons – including all of the above; as well as a huge heap of bravura and obvious talent…. What clinched it, in the end, was his partnership with David (LP) during the closing bars of the last movement: bringing the work to a controlled, but ultimately thrilling, close. Magical to behold. And I did not breathe until my hands were numb from clapping.

[By the way, I still tend to disagree with David (C)’s decision(s) not to conduct pieces like this. But, in this case, I’ll let him off. Once the blue touch paper was lit, these were self-propelling fireworks of the highest order! (And he is boss, after all!) I do think, however, that just a smidgen of clarity is lost when he is not at the helm; that the oomph is dialled down to, say, 99% of normal. It is a measure of both David (LP)’s talent and the massive esteem he is held in by his colleagues, though, that he manages to play so astoundingly, mesmerizingly well, and still guide the orchestra to such a stunning performance. (One player said to me, afterwards, that David (LP) always makes you want to improve – probably, I think, because he is constantly demonstrating that he is doing the same. As the pre-concert talk at Stratford demonstrated, once more: he is also a great communicator – maybe just not quite so enthusiastically, or knowledgeably, about woodwind, as he is about strings…!)]

Having (eventually) gone to sleep after experiencing what may well have been the world’s most glorious harmonious dream, I – and billions others – woke up to a political nightmare. But this – amongst many other reasons – is what music is for…. Time to finish committing my judgments to paper; and to suggest that David (C) conducts in T‑shirt and jeans more often… – as it is obviously more ‘freeing’ than the starch of tie and tails; and, imperceptibly, perhaps, brought just a tiny air of relaxation to proceedings, along with a lovely breath of fresh air!

After the (concert) interval – and even that flew by, somehow… – we were treated to Bach’s strings-only third Brandenburg Concerto. Again, this never fails to delight – especially when played with OOTS’ magical combination of passion and precision. Just as complex as any contemporary score – each of the three string groupings (three each of violins, violas and cellos) often splitting into their component parts – David (C) managed this with deftness (and a ginormous grin). No baton was needed with such a small group of players – one where every drop of ink hitting the page was audible – his arms gathered as if to embrace, rather than direct.

If the works before the interval had allowed individuals to shine, this was the moment for the whole group to be brilliant. And this is not an orchestra that can resist such opportunity! This, for me, was the highlight of a programme built from a stream of highlights – the glowing sun hitting the highest peak…. Not only the purity of such a small force; but that glow, that resonant lure of string music – from the intimacy of a Haydn or Beethoven string quartet through to the shimmering splendour of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Tippett… – harmonies that have a line, that sing, straight to my soul. This – for all my spilling of “generous” adjectives and adverbs loaded with praise, astonishment, delight, satisfaction… – was perfection. And its direct link with the Martland which opened the programme, wizardly.

It is easy to see why Stravinsky became so fixated with it: not only the wonder and power of the notes; but the inventiveness of the scoring; the crispness of the counterpoint; the ebbing and flowing of voices through and across the stage. I do not believe in God. But Bach did. And God obviously believed in him.

So, to finish, Stravinsky’s response to that “fixation”: a work that bears a similar relationship to the third as Cuomo’s does to the second – the scintillating and spellbinding Dumbarton Oaks – which, like the Bach, turns every single member of the ensemble into a soloist. (And I can forgive David for not running the movements together, attacca – after all, even the greatest athletes need a break now and then!)

I am not sure that any band of players could ever make this look easy: but OOTS sure as heck didn’t make it appear the challenge it truly is. Its full title is Concerto in E flat for Chamber Orchestra – and that “concerto” word is paramount: not only creating stars on every stave; but requiring an individual and group virtuosity that is second nature to OOTS – their powers of instrumental transparency and camaraderie (a handful of string players, plus five wind) conquering every complexity; every line as clear as spring water… – although it opens with what could almost be a peal of church bells: hidden (not very successfully) amongst which is the selfsame theme that launches the preceding Bach!

This, for me, is Stravinsky at his neo-classical best (with the wit dialled up to eleven). And, from the dazzling sound they produced, it seems as if OOTS might agree! It may not be as ‘in your face’ as Le Sacre du printemps – although there are strong hints of that riotous work: particularly in the last movement – but it demonstrates perfectly his mastery of rhythm, melody and instrumentation: and with a huge dollop of heart (nicely interwoven with self-conscious, affectionate pastiche)!

No wonder the applause went on for so long….

This was not only an extremely intelligently-crafted programme – with all its internal “mirror-symmetries”, reflections, refractions, tributes and inspirations – but one full of power and great joy; one that lifted the soul and the spirits – as well as leaving you in awe of what the OOTS Energizer Bunnies can achieve. [I just count myself extremely fortunate to have had the chance to be there twice. (This was, after all, a programme christened Bach to the Future.)]

It is just a shame – at both venues – that there weren’t full houses to witness this captivating contiguity – although, to be fair, it wasn’t that far off at Stratford ArtsHouse, thankfully. I shall never understand, though, why some otherwise-avid concert-goers will go out of their way to avoid a programme with ‘contemporary’ music scheduled – especially when (in this case) it’s only twenty minutes or so in length. How on earth can anyone know in advance whether they’ll like it, loathe it, or absolutely adore it (which, in this case, I can guarantee they would have done…)?

This was something incredibly special and compelling. So, be warned: the new work from Paul Moravec commissioned for the next concert – as a “companion piece” to Haydn’s deceptively charming Sinfonia Concertante – is heart-breakingly, jaw-droppingly, lung-stoppingly beautiful. (If you don’t believe me, please listen to his Tempest Fantasy, the Violin Concerto, one of his quintets… – indeed, any of his wide-ranging recorded repertoire… – they will not disappoint.)

Oh, and of course those tears… – they were mostly of joy and admiration.

Hugh took one last lingering look around the Town Hall before slowly leaving the stage…. Don’t worry, though: he’ll be Bach. This is a man (pictured above, earlier in the year, with composer Dobrinka Tabakova) as mettlesome as the instrument he plays. (That doesn’t mean – hint, hint – that you shouldn‘t click that link at the top of this review, and hit the “donate” button!)

Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder.

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