Thursday, 13 July 2017

That band who so vauntingly swore…

I wrote (almost exactly twenty-four hours ago – although the two days cushioning this period have somehow become concatenated; or even coalesced, commingled…) that…

This is not the chamber OOTS you thought you knew; this is an overwhelming, resonant army of talented and mighty musical soldiers shocking-and-awing, marching to magnificence…

…one of my reasons for saying so not just being the “lot more chairs laid out… than perhaps was usual” consideration, but what had precipitated that augmentation – the orchestra playing outside its normal repertoire (almost as if they were in their away strip on a strangely sloping ground only the home team was supposed to have grokked; but which actually gave the proficient and passionate visitors some preternatural advantage). The conclusion, therefore, being that they should do more such things: maybe a chamber version of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (not my idea – but this post’s dedicatee’s) or Gurre-Lieder (although I may have had a partial – and temporary – lingual gena intercalation when suggesting this to artistic director David Curtis…)?!

There is a serious point to be made here, though: and that is – whatever the size of the OOTS ‘team’ on any given day; and whatever the scores laid before them – two truths will be self-evident: firstly, that every single player will be continually giving their utmost (an OOTS trademark that surpasses all other such ensembles); secondly, that you will be able to hear every single player doing so – their melodic, harmonic, leading, or supporting, lines of notes – continually. It doesn’t matter if it is a blaring fortississimo final chord, or a passage of finger-to-the-Curtis-lip, hushed pianississimo melancholy: you can guarantee that every single line of the stave dotted with notes at that time will be impeccably balanced and astoundingly audible. Just so.

I’ve yet to fathom how this works. I suspect there is thaumaturgy going on somewhere (perhaps around a cauldron deep in the foundations of Stratford ArtsHouse (I have a very vivid and inexhaustible imagination)); or that the individual wizardry of each performer simply (such a word demonstrating that I still don’t understand how…) interacts continually with that of the others to produce a continually dynamic equilibrium borne of hard-won expertise. Whatever it is, however it transpires, it truly is magical. And makes driving to Lichfield Cathedral and back, on a whim – to experience (one never simply ‘hears’ the Orchestra of the Swan, y’know…) two hours of music that you only heard played (pretty much perfectly) a day ago – one of the most desirable and sensible things ever.

Having never visited said town before – one of the very last of my pantheon of British cathedrals – I have to say that photographs of the building (like that word) do not do it justice – those three decorated spires almost overwhelming in their magnificence; as well as impressing and inspiring with the greatest of drop-jawed awe. Sat in the Close, an hour or so before the (repeat) concert, its statuesque charisma (‘atmosphere’ seems far too weak a word) drew me in; whilst simultaneously making me feel very small indeed – its 1,300-year history and literally gobsmacking architecture looming over me (presumably benignly).

I obviously would not know, until I entered, whether this really was in welcome; or to inspire the god-fearing reverence and stupefaction inculcated in those wordless serfs witnessing its gargantuan scale of construction. Such a thought making me wonder, too, of its acoustic qualities – a recent ecclesiastical encounter having been somewhat problematical. However long its echo, or round its resonance, I was more than sure that David and OOTS would adapt, though. As I said above, they always do: squeezing the greatest musical sounds possible from any venue; any situation.

But I did consider ‘refigurability’ more than anything. Could these forces achieve the same astonishing greatness two days in a row? (As I was finally swallowed by the body of the beautiful beast, I crossed my fingers….)

My first impression was that I had been led by my sat-nav to the wrong place and time: the nave illuminated like Paisley Park – very purple; very jazzy. [To be honest: I still haven’t the faintest what this signified… – but it did lend OOTS a certain incandescent vibe (even if they and the interior really didn’t need an extra layer of vitality). Hm. Interesting.]

On to the music – and that acoustic. Well, initially, the orchestra sounded a little distant – but remarkably clear – the warm (but short-lasting) reverberation not denting the ‘feel’ or pellucidity of the instrumental texture: in fact, in many ways, aiding it: as with the ticklish gaps in the If he’d be a buckaroo by his trade brass solos. This was additionally helped by a more traditional ‘stacking’ of the orchestra – letting the trumpets and brass (piled high in front of that amazing rhythm section of Tim Farmer, Tom Peverel, Anna Newman, and Bruce Parry) both hear their colleagues, and be heard – by us. (I was fortunate in my seating position, the previous night: apparently in just the right place to hear the orchestra’s ‘symmetry’. Here, I think, everyone benefited – my seat chosen explicitly for a view of Thomas Nickell’s skilful hands….)

Of course, the audience and venue was much, much larger [and, I have to say, not as quiet or as well-behaved as at Stratford: much fidgeting, Facebooking, fanning and fiddling made manifest. I know not everyone attends concerts to enter some sort of transfixed, emotive Zen-state, like me… – but, please, at least let those of us who go to be more than merely, intermittently, entertained, experience some sort of stillness. (Does Lichfield still have a cattle market…?!?)]. But once habituated (and eyes focused only on the musical action), the sound embraced me rather responsively, and with a barely noticeable (but gratifying) patina of warmth.

My ears may have deceived me: but I could have sworn that both Corral Nocturne (strangely followed by applause…!) and Saturday Night Waltz were given just the teensiest extra bit of room to breathe. Something had changed (unbelievably, for the better) – perhaps it was the sound quality; or perhaps it was an increase in confidence. Whatever, or however, the result was enough to completely absorb me in the score.

There was certainly space made for those willing to fall into the “heffalump trap” of my previous night’s making – David dropping his arms to his sides, grinning: obviously knowing that other such gullible numpties would fall right in. And they did! No matter, the race to the end of Hoe-Down was just as thrilling!

[Yesterday – after David asking the first “fiddles”, in rehearsal, to play more like cowboys and -girls – Miss McLeod’s reel (which sits at the heart of this final movement) had started to take on the feel of something richly traditional, and with all its corners smoothed off – just as it should be. But, tonight, its Celtic roots were yet more unfettered – and it exploded, quite brilliantly, into measures tripping most vigorously: encircling farmhands vigorously encircling each other and a vigorous open fire; spirits (of both types) flowing freely! (I had a sudden urge to learn the bodhrán: such was the impact!) Electrifying!]

Sometimes, size, it seems, does make a difference. I presume it was down to limitations of stage space that the piano wheeled on after the gloriously invigorating Copland was rather compact… – not because it was the first choice of the pianist. My eyes (this time) may have deceived me… – but it was certainly not the orchestral concert grand I had been expecting…. And then it dawned on me that its presence in Hoe-Down had been rather muted. (This time, I crossed my fingers really, really tightly.)

Although it was a real pleasure to watch Thomas ‘at work’ – studying his own hands intently, as always (his stool seemingly too far away from the keyboard – even for one so tall and long-limbed); but with the new, almost lackadaisical lack of regard for his rapidly-moving fingers as he coordinates with David and the orchestra… – much of the orchestrally-accompanied playing was difficult to discern (and I was only eleven rows from the front). The solo passages also appeared to lack yesterday’s sparkle and dynamic impact (and Thomas is certainly not known for his inability to hit keys hard…) – the sound not matching the pictures, as it were… – and I suspect that, here, the acoustic (and compromised choice of instrument) was just being plain unkind. The impressive encore (which I’m afraid I did not recognize) continued the theme of hands and fingers carrying out seemingly impossible feats (especially a series of pugnacious trills) – but was also slightly muffled: the sound just not penetrating far into the cathedral air… – although the playing was tremendously exciting; and involved just the right level of restrained showmanship.

I wasn’t so much disappointed (not for myself, anyway), as sad that the audience weren’t getting the cream from the top of the milk (as we did in Stratford, the day before) – although, in their boundless enthusiasm and approbation, its many members were obviously satisfied and delighted. In response, Thomas looked – as he always does – slightly baffled, when he reappeared on stage: as if astonished at the miracles he has just accomplished; and the fact that there are so many people so highly thrilled by it all. But he, I think, deserved it….

The better positioning of the brass certainly came to the fore in the ‘New World’ Symphony: Dvořák’s leitmotivs (“almost Wagnerian,” said cor anglais supremo Louise Braithwaite) now clearer, more noticeable (and yet more subtle: a repeat performance creating new highlights; demonstrating a clarity in musical relationships that you had only suspected). The woodwind, too, shone even brighter. But it was the horns that formed the rousing (and crucial) ‘spine’ of the performance – Francesca Moore-Bridger, Craig MacDonald, Richard Lewis, and Paul Cott – sublime with every sharp-as-a-pin entry; every stirring, beautifully-shaped phrase and call.

Last night’s intensity was thus intact (if not yet more profound, more potent…): pulling together all that had gone before – three distinctly different views of ever-changing America: yet with a unifying spirit that confirmed the power of intelligent programming.

I’m sorry if I don’t sound quite as energetically excited as whatever night the previous concert was reviewed. Read that one again; and inject its vibrancy and joy into this one – and you’ll get a pretty good idea how great these two concerts were (especially the storming performances of the Dvořák)! Just because I quibbled at the slightly dimmer sound emanating from the piano does not mean I didn’t enjoy – and relish – the performance: just that it was different to the preceding one (which was fantastic…).

It is now 05:21 – well into a grey dawn – and the incredible musicality of the last forty-eight hours or so has propelled me on breathlessly (and will continue to do so, no doubt). This was all tremendously special; and I count myself truly blessed to have been able to attend both concerts; and immerse myself in the inexplicable ‘magicness’ of it all. Good morning…!

This review is dedicated to multi-instrumentalist Matthew Forbes: an erudite musician, gracious human being, and grand friend… – one with the biggest of hearts, and an eternally-enquiring and -expanding mind. (And I bet he has at least one bodhrán in a cupboard, somewhere… – not to mention the cipín to go with it!) Thank you!

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