Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hexachordum Apollinis…

I think the word I was looking for was bliss… – although any of its synonyms would probably have sufficed: ecstasy, euphoria, rapture, joy, elation, happiness, gladness, blessedness, etc. – the feeling that the opening notes of Mozart’s Serenade No.13 for Strings in G major always provoke in me: primarily, because the piece – better known as Eine kleine Nachtmusikis so fantastically blissful; but also because, last night, this appositely-named piece of music was rendered nirvana by five extremely talented members of Orchestra of the Swan. The occasion was the Friends of Orchestra of the Swan fundraising soirée; and its proceeds are to be put “towards the orchestra’s projects in local care homes” – as worthy a cause as I can think of. As Artistic Director David Curtis said, in a brief speech, “it really does make a huge difference”.

Bliss was also writ large on each of the player’s faces – David Le Page and Rebekah Allan, violins; Adrian Turner, viola; Nick Stringfellow, cello; and Stacey Watton, double-bass – along with hearty dollops of concentration and communication. But, as I’ve probably set down on these (and other) pages far too many times, if there’s anything that marks OOTS out as unequalled – however many (or few) of its players are on-stage – it is this unique combination of talent and joy, combined with a healthy dose of friendly fellowship: a camaraderie that leaps forth with every single note sounded. As I’ve probably also documented too frequently: my hearing aids seem to ‘prefer’ such chamber ensembles and the sound they produce – the transparency of tone and the clarity of line granting the music an instant comprehensibility that requires no further interpretation, no further work, from me. It is enjoyment – nay, “bliss” – pure and simple. And all the better for it.

Thankfully, Stratford-upon-Avon Town Hall was packed: most of the 150 or so seats filled with happy punters – themselves filled with “Bubbly and Canapés on arrival”! And, although this sustenance may have been behind the enthusiastic intra-movement applause – not necessarily a bad thing for such a relatively informal event… – it also provoked a wonderful, spirited hubbub both before the concert; and during the interval; as well as a storming, and thoroughly well-deserved, ovation, at the end. And yet, to the audience’s credit (bar one teensy-weensy mishap – see Postscript…), this excitement somehow magically transmuted into complete and reverential silence during the music. (In other words, a typical, knowledgeable, reverential, OOTS audience.)

This is a beautiful building, by the way; and it is to my shame that I have never been inside before. I had been concerned about the acoustics – a lot of hard flat surfaces, broken up by large windows, and decorative plasterwork – but I need not have worried: the sound was clean and clear: entirely suited to such chamber forces.

And this was as perfect a rendition of Eine kleine as I think I am ever likely to experience – full of airy textures, crisp synchronization, and ravishing dynamics – the opening Allegro crammed full of refreshing delight; a wonderful, rousing way to begin the musical New Year! The succeeding Romanze was beautifully tender: its intimacy perfectly suited to the time and place; as was the Menuetto. Although, here, the gentility – so well matched to the delightful décor – seemed to demand of us all that we be in period costume, dancing happily: perhaps almost waltzing, in slower motion…! [And, no: I hadn’t had a single drop. Thank you very much.] But such reveries were quickly quenched by the final Rondo – almost stormy in impact: Stacey’s magnificent bass playing used to great effect!

But we weren’t just there for the quintessential quintet. At the end of February, “following [their] two highly successful performances of David Matthews’ Piano Concerto with the young American pianist Thomas Nickell, Orchestra of the Swan has been invited to give the American première with Thomas in New York’s Carnegie Hall”. But, as Friends Chairman Chris Wheeler stated in his opening address, not many of us will be able to travel to the States to witness this! So, instead, a small part of “New York has come to Stratford-upon-Avon” – in the form of Thomas himself!

He brought with him an essential piece of musical Americana – Gershwin’s affecting Three Preludes. I love these pieces – syncopated soundscapes, if you will… – but Thomas obviously has them flowing through his veins. From the opening con licenzia blues motif to the closing arpeggiated flourish, he exhibited impeccably-controlled emotion: wonderful, unhurried builds underwritten by flawless, unassailable technique. His touch was exquisite and sure: the virtuosity restrained but effective. There is obviously a great deal of confidence: but it is almost as if it is internalized – only the results are allowed to show. The upshot is a form of strongly-held conviction, it seems to me, rather than overtly-expressed boldness. It is also mesmerizing to see, and to hear.

The Preludes are only – sadly – short pieces; and – sadly – Gershwin only lived a short life, like Mozart. But it always astonishes me how many ideas are crammed so effortlessly into their eleven pages (as he did into that brief span); and how beautifully these ideas flow. The heavy stomping bass that follows that concise motif would later be echoed in a tour de force performance of an early twentieth-century masterpiece, closing the first half in style – but here it demonstrated Thomas’ ability to deliver tension with precision; with gusto as well as guts.

Talking of which: I thought it immensely brave of him to stand and give a short oration before playing. Perhaps he has learned from Maestro Curtis… – but such communication is exactly what classical music needs (but often lacks). Sadly – because I had chosen to sit at the back; and, it turns out, directly adjacent to the Town Hall’s incredibly rackety heating system (which, thankfully, someone put out of our misery during the interval) – my hearing aids were not up to the job of catching more than a few words: but it was obvious that he is passionate and sincere in his love for what he does.

The changes of dynamic, the presentation and development of themes, of ideas, were seamless. In particular, the gradual diminuendo of the first Prelude – a final rising scale fading from forte to piano – before a shocking final fortissimo chord (I wanted to call it a “plonk”, because of the left-hand drop…) – was outstanding. There is no showmanship; nothing for effect. All is contained… – perhaps within the heart.

The second Prelude – although still jazzy: with a wonderful, hushed, repeated ground bass in the opening and closing sections – foreshadowed the deft melodic touch Thomas would use with such lethal efficacy after the interval. Gershwin described this as “a sort of blues lullaby” – but the fascination of interwoven hands, and the perfectly regulated climax and sudden almost-silence are much more alluring than sleep (even to an insomniac, such as myself).

The final ‘movement’ is undoubtedly the funkiest: beginning with another series of thrilling stomps; and then what Thomas made feel like a conversation, a dialogue, in the right hand – sequences flickering between minor and major statements or voices. When these themes returned – after stirring syncopation that could only be Gershwin’s – Thomas developed this “dialogue” into one almighty argument: electrifying and urgent, until that final major flourish wins the day. Stupendous. And the resultant applause was just reward. It may only be six months since he made his first appearance here: but he has continued to grow musically, to learn – as it was obvious he would.

The final pair of pieces – Beauty and the Beast in contrast, if you will (of mood; of impact; of, perhaps, the two sides of the pianist himself…) – were also thoroughly spellbinding: firstly, an arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (possibly the most sumptuous, tragic music ever written); and then Henry Cowell’s lung-crunching Tides of Manaunaun.

This latter work, with its utterly astonishing, thrilling, gripping, thudding, repeated waves of tumultuous ‘tone clusters’ (breaking with the intensity of condensed avalanches) in the left hand (or, rather, arm), is as riveting as music can be. Cowell’s own commentary may go some way to explaining why:

In Irish mythology, Manaunaun was the god of motion and of the waves of the sea. And according to the mythology, at the time when the universe was being built, Manaunaun swayed all of the materials out of which the universe was being built with fine particles which were distributed everywhere through cosmos. And he kept these moving in rhythmical tides so that they should remain fresh when the time came for their use in the building of the universe.

This was delivered with aplomb: all the previous restraint launched into the sky with some serious pianistic fireworks; and substantial, righteous poundage. My goodness – what a superb way to end the first half! Thunderstruck, I headed off to find some fresh air….

Sitting in the hall, well before the concert began: content simply to absorb the atmosphere, as is my wont, I scrawled in my notebook that…

Chamber music is a tough gig for everyone involved – although, with my selective hearing loss, it is my favourite (and easiest to listen to) – not only requiring the skills of a soloist (the willingness to be exposed, musically), but necessitating a high capacity for teamwork (no conductor; but respect for leadership) – an eagle eye, as well as a moth’s ear. The members of the OOTS Quintet are past masters of this, of course (this is also not too big a step away from the world of the chamber orchestra) – but I had yet to witness Thomas in this role – although my expectations were high.
     When he had played concertos with both OOTS and the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra (both with David conducting), he had a slight tendency to look up less frequently than was perhaps required… – although perhaps his relative inexperience renders this excusable…?

I need not have worried. In fact, on last night’s evidence, not only was there a great deal more observation and communication [I told you he continued to learn, didn’t I?!], but I now wonder if, indeed chamber music might not be his forte? At least for the moment. The example I have in mind is my hero, Ian Brown, of the wondrous Nash Ensemble.

There is no doubt – both from last year’s concerts, and last night’s – that he is more than capable of producing great, involving solo performances: from ancient to modern; from Bach to Matthews. But such collegiate music-making as was now required certainly leads to more responsibility – and a crucial need to not only keep abreast of your fellow players, but to be truly engaged in what I can only describe as ‘decision-making on the fly’. In some ways, having to use this ‘sixth sense’ is a tougher task than ploughing a lone, solo furrow. Whatever his future, there is no doubt it is exceeding bright.

It is less than a year since I last heard “my favourite Mozart piano concerto” – no.12, K414played live – and by the peerless(!?) Peter Donohoe. (Who claims, incidentally, that you have to be sixty-five to understand Mozart. Not only is Peter younger than this; but Mozart only lived to be 35, of course – and composed this work when he was 26!) Thomas thus had a lot to live up to! [No pressure.]

As I wrote, then…

The closing Mozart concerto never quite lets go of this more maudlin feeling – despite being in that “golden, warm, and sunny” key of A major… – not even, I feel, “in the genial rondo finale marked Allegretto”.

…which is perhaps why it has always so resonated with me. Having it performed a quattro – as it was here, albeit with the addition of Stacey’s marvellous bass – simply added to the allure: that “transparency of tone and… clarity of line” consummating perfection; and expanding my familiarity with new levels of understanding. It was just so incredibly refreshing – and intensely moving – to hear it performed with such pellucidity; in a version of such fine fretwork: where all instruments were so well balanced, were equals.

David Le Page’s leadership – as you would expect – was subtle but precise; and the attention – to the music; to each other – that had been so evident at the beginning of the evening was now, somehow, more consolidated. And, yes, when he wasn’t concentrating on his solo passages, Thomas’ head, too was raised – frequently – reinforcing the tutti passages; signalling the end of cadenzas – a true part of the team.

The playing from all members of the sextet was sublime: the opening Allegro perfectly paced; and actually quite joyous! But it was the sublime central Andante which took my breath away… – the highlight of the night. The opening string playing – so redolent of Mozart’s quartets – was just ravishing: beauty and divine contemplation in every note. And Thomas’ entry – repeating the movement’s opening chords with the gravity of a Chopin prelude – stopped both my pulse and the time by which to measure it.

It is not easy to lend a sequence so simple such weight, and with such apparent effortlessness. That Thomas achieved this twice – in a movement that was over far, far too soon – but with judicious and subtle changes of shade – may be all the proof you need of his maturity and his continuing development (prompted by that obvious willingness to absorb lessons from those around him). This was certainly the best I have ever heard him play: and those four bars will remain etched in my mind for a very long time. Wow.

The finale – of the concerto; of the concert… – an Allegretto of exceeding happiness and conviviality (wherever did I get the idea that this music was “maudlin”…?!) – couldn’t have been more befitting. Somehow, not only was it the culmination of the evening; but it seemed to exemplify the spirit of all that had gone before: deft touches from all quarters; smiles; explicit communication; impeccable musicianship. No wonder the applause (and cheers) went on so long – warming our hands in preparation for the cold night air…! 2016 ended on several superb musical high notes; and it seems that 2017 is set to continue the trend. Happy New Year!

Postscript
Not only did the heating system render some of the quieter moments of the first half reminiscent of listening to an old 78 rpm gramophone record [ask your grandparents, kids]; but, at one (quiet) point during Thomas’ last two solo pieces, someone’s phone started talking, Siri- or Cortana-style; and rather loudly. It was to Thomas’ credit – and a demonstration of his inherent professionalism – that it appeared not to break his concentration (although the audience’s heads spun as one: as if witnessing one of Andy Murray’s aces on Centre Court).

When will concert – and theatre – attendees learn that muting phones, or simply turning off their screens, simply isn’t enough? They must be turned off completely. Not only because of the possibility that some sort of noise will interrupt or distract; but because the bright screen may have a similarly disruptive effect. As I scribbled in anger during the interval of The Seven Acts of Mercy at the RSC, on Thursday night:

I don’t know why the guy next to me kept looking at his phone – when the action on the stage was so gripping/involving. Why pay for a ticket and then not really get full value from it – as well as [peeing] off your neighbour, big time – who has tears streaming down his cheeks, and doesn’t want the suspension of his disbelief to come clattering to the floor because of your selfishness… – do you really not get the message? Not see what is going on in front of you? Or do you not want to…?

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