Thursday, 23 February 2017

This serious moonlight…

This review is dedicated to Paolo Pezzangora – without whom there would be much less musical magic in the world.

Whoever writes the Orchestra of the Swan’s programme notes is either a genius (doubtful); has a crystal ball – in which case: can I borrow it, please…? – or understands Artistic Director David Curtis’ winsome whimsies far too well – for they had written at the end of the (supposedly) final work of yesterday’s concert at Town Hall, Birmingham: Haydn’s 59th symphony…

Watch David closely, though, the concert – unless he rejigs the programme (again) – may not quite end when you think it does!

…and, of course, he opened with it, didn’t he?!

Mind you: I got absolutely soaked on my short hobble from Snow Hill station – ‘weather bomb’ Doris already making her bad temper known – so the ‘Feuer’ was just what was needed to drive out the damp: especially the rude interruption, in the slow movement coda, from the horns – who then excelled in the final, galloping movement! Even a member of the orchestra said he’d never enjoyed playing a Haydn symphony quite so much! And it was not just invigorating; but truly, musically, thrilling. OOTS excel at many things: but they do seem to have a special affinity with the wit and wisdom of the Father of the Symphony.

I know I have a slight rebellious streak. Playing the piano throughout my childhood, I wasn’t so much interested in perfecting a piece, but re-arranging it: even if it simply meant playing it (usually considerably) faster, or an octave higher. This is why I became a composer: I preferred pushing boundaries and trying new things…. I am conscious that this approach, and the musical style that it produces, may seem challenging – arrogant, even. But, actually, it simply stems from a desire to try new things, rather than something that has already been fully explored and perfected. Why rewrite what has already been done so well?
– Joanna Lee: Commissions accomplished…!

David said that he’d switched the programme around because the composer of the next work, Joanna Lee, shared that affinity – and so it proved to be. Blue Blaze – Dance Suite is the third of four commissions written for the orchestra’s 21st Anniversary Season: all written to match an existing concertante work – in this case, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds (which would, eventually, close the concert…). Like Paul Moravec, before her, she had removed the oboes and horns from the ripieno (an incredibly sage decision: at least for this venue – see below); although this did not mean that the instrumentation was either lacking in variety or power. In fact, it was difficult to believe, at many junctures, that there were so few players – so few types of player – on stage: such were the variety of sounds conjured into being.

Despite being christened a “Dance Suite”, for me, the constituent movements rapidly materialized as prospective interludes (somewhat like the entr’actes Haydn’s ‘Feuer’ Symphony would become, albeit of a play) for an opera I would love to see and hear. There were distinct characters and leitmotivs in there: just begging to burst out into a broader arena; to tell an even greater story. (The closest analog, I suppose is Peter Grimes – Joanna having mentioned Benjamin Britten as an influence in the pre-concert talk.)

Blue Blaze Ballet, the first “dance’, is a beautiful, heart-rending depiction of dawn; an axiomatic demonstration of why we need such commissions; and why OOTS exists. This, I believe – however wonderful their performances of the ‘classics’ always are (witness the Haydn) – really is their ne plus ultra – although, as David explained, he tries to take exactly the same approach, whatever the age of the work or composer, with every piece of music: going back to first principles with each score; trying to get inside each composer’s head (alive or dead; present or absent); always aiming to tell the music’s ‘story’.

Although I had access to the score, having not made it to the world première in Stratford-upon-Avon, last week, I had forgotten that this movement was “inspired by daybreak at Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk, with its glistening blue sea and sky”. But you didn’t need to know: it was so astoundingly obvious – you were transported there: the shingle digging deep through the soles of your shoes – yet feeling no pain, distracted by the overwhelming beauty which Joanna had captured, to a note.

The entry of each of the soloists was sublime: Phillip Brookes’ bassoon playing the first notes heard, by a whisper. Such a reserved player; and yet the expressiveness (and of my favourite woodwind instrument) stretched effortlessly to the very limit – even in that seven-bar, fading pedal. Sally Harrop’s clarinet and Francesca Moore-Bridger’s horn subtle in their lyrical, slow syncopation. And then, finally, Victoria Brawn’s curlew‑like cry, beneath a suspended high mist of almost inaudible violins. There is no returning from such a piercing of the soul: not just the rising of the sun; the breaking of the day; but the dawning of belief – music that calls to you; calls to you… that makes you belong. And so easily, too.

Why rewrite what has already been done so well?

It therefore doesn’t matter that I cannot manufacture a box to neatly lock this music away in; and then label it. It just is what it is: Joanna Lee’s. All I know is that I was instantly smitten. I was also astonished – upon returning to the score – to discover just how complex and detailed it is, when it produces such apparently ‘simple’ results. Despite all that hard work, this is a creator who obviously understands the decidedly ‘un-simple’ relationship between stave and sound-stage.

The result is almost impressionistic, but with the clarity – and impact – of Sickert or Rodin. (In the score, between each movement, one whole page is given over to a bar marked in each part with a pause. This is a composer who knows David and OOTS as well as her own mind!)

How many ways are there to play a second violin?! I do not know. But if they are not demonstrated in the second movement, Hockley Hip-hop, then I would be surprised. And there may even be a few that are not even mentioned in The Great Book! This was astonishing! (And this section may well end up containing too many exclamation marks!) It also could not have provided more of a contrast with the first – and yet, somehow, miraculously, it did not make a dent in the atmosphere which that had gathered together. (And, no: I do not know how. Some sort of magic, I expect.)

Phillip’s bassoon set off with its funkiness dialled up to eleven. Woodwind instruments are good at this: quirky sharpness, mixed in with a bit of offbeat legato… – and Joanna obviously knows how to elicit the maximum from them: especially with the time-signature changing with each bar-line. A single pizzicato from the first violins emphasizes a single solo note; but the second violins decide that strings just aren’t good enough for them, and start rapping the backs of their instruments with their knuckles! Sensational stuff! And wonderfully inventive! More pizzicatos, and Sally’s clarinet joins in – equally funky; then Victoria’s oboe: a tad more lyrical. Meanwhile, the strings are doing their best Buddy Rich impersonation – and pretty good they are, too (although, occasionally, they appear to forget, and elements of Django Reinhardt slip in)!

By now, Francesca has joined in: stressing certain notes and phrases the other three are tossing about – and there are smiles (mixed in with frowns of intense rhythmic concentration) everywhere. Dynamics were as precise as Audi’s best engineering; and David’s control of tempi – and those complex switches of measure – as lissom as the notes themselves. But it wasn’t all fun. Occasional passages of quiet lyricism crept in – always rapidly dissolving into impish quirkiness, though… – a masterclass in technique for everyone on stage!

We could have done with the cold showers pounding at the windows. But instead, something much, much better – Dunwich Dirge. This was marked “sullen” in the score. But, as dark as it was, it was in no way miserable – but it did begin with that intense dark, espresso blend of string-writing that only the English do so well. It always looks remarkably simple on page – but encapsulates such complex sensations; and has the ability to drag the tears on to your lap before the end of bar four. And then the horn arrives; followed closely by the woodwind – and there’s a veritable puddle.

This was, perhaps, less concertante than the other movements – and yet the horn did lead on occasions: providing more beauty – but of a deeper kind than the opener. Again, the dedication to Britten shone through – no pastiche, or necessary (or voiced) direct quotation (or perhaps too well-hidden for my fading ears) – just the beneficent ghosts of Dennis Brain’s always perfect pitch and tone, and the mellifluence of Peter Pears’ precise pronunciation and explicit emotion, beaming down from above. This was soul-rending stuff. But far, far, far too short.

The finale, Rugrat Rumpus, “inspired by the movement and unpredictable behaviour” of the composer’s two-year-old daughter, was as witty as the second, but perhaps a little more cartoonish. A fortissimo flourish from the wind; a loud pizzicato from the violins and violas; a growl from the cellos and basses; a Gershwin-like glissando from Sally; lots more pizzicatos; a trill from Sally (for suspense) – and, finally, we’re on our way: with a wonderful clarinet solo, which is then taken up by the oboe and bassoon.

This is a virtuosic way to end – and I must have spent most of it with my jaw in that puddle… – but it was great fun! Afterwards, though, it definitely needed an interval, for everyone to recover.

People keep telling me that (what we insist on calling) classical music is on its last legs – but not on this evidence; not on the creative side. This was another – and, for me, the best of the three, so far… – stupendous new work. (And, no, you probably couldn’t dance to it – unless you were Tamara Rojo, perhaps – so why not a ballet, then, instead?) It was another stunning, original, wide-ranging, demonstration of awe-inspiring talent. Gosh, David and OOTS have a good nose for this stuff!

Now, if we could only find a big spigot, somewhere, with a flood of young audience members flowing out the other end, to match…!?

After the interval, we had a gem of an overture by a twelve-year-old. On the evidence of this, he’ll go far. Mozart was his name, and the opera it was written for was Bastien und Bastienne. No, me neither. OOTS gave it the welly and respect they give to everything, though; as they did the Sinfonia Concertante which polished off the afternoon.

There’s a lot of debate about the authorship of this – but the woodwind writing is so perfect and balanced it has to be Mozart’s. And, as you would imagine, the four soloists were once again perfect. I will say one thing about it, though: the move from the central Adagio – one of the composer’s typically beautiful slow movements – to the final Andante con Variazioni reminded me a little of the last two movements of Joanna’s work: the sublime to the hilarious.

I may be misremembering (so I apologize if I am: but it may be that the clarinet player in question was actually telling me of another of his ilk…) – but I think it was Jack Brymer who suggested that the variations of this could be used as a drinking game: lining shots of your favourite spirit up for each orchestral ritornello, so that it gets more rowdy as it progresses. (What the orchestra and conductor are supposed to do, I do not know.) But it does have a tendency to get out of hand if you let it. Although I have to say that everyone involved, yesterday, was remarkably sober! And received the extended ovation they well-deserved! (Back out to meet Doris. Her mood had not improved one jot.)

A long time ago, I mentioned Joanna’s removal of the horns and oboes from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. Before I go on, I have to say that the horn playing, yesterday was truly remarkable: especially for its accuracy (and I say this as someone who tried to tame the beast; and, after many years, lay badly bruised and defeated…). This is not an easy instrument to master. However, it is also – like all brass instruments – one whose volume ranges from moderately loud to “ouch, I think I’ve lost an eardrum”: even though it is, by far, the quietest (or least loud) of the breed.

As those who frequent it will know, at the back of the Town Hall stage is a solid wall. In other words, the perfect (literal) sounding board for the business end (bell) of the horns. Now, in the suitably bouncy Haydn, this wasn’t really an issue. The symphony is pretty ‘fiery’ – although that’s not really how it earned its nickname. And, in the last movement, they run riot: although it was supposed to be a dialogue with the oboes – but from where I sat, stage right, it sounded quite one-sided: because I was directly in line with the blast from that “sounding board”. Had I been sat stage left, the bodies of the orchestra would have muffled them: and, from experience, all would have been fine. But it wasn’t.

Now I’m presuming that all was well in Stratford ArtsHouse, for the première: as it has curtains; and an empty stage (and I have spies). But I would like to ask that whoever is responsible to, next time, perhaps strategically place a mattress behind them (or a small cushion in them)?! (Actually, all you really have to do, is place them in the middle of the back row, rather than the end.) When you’ve only got a handful of string players, balance is everything. Thank you!


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