BBC Symphony Orchestra violinists Celia Waterhouse and Danny Meyer visited the class last week to play and chat (I missed my chance to snap them before the instruments returned to their cases, so they obliged by getting colleague Anna Smith to take a fine double portrait in Maida Vale the following day). The outer panels of their triptych tied in with last Saturday's Mahler Resurrection and this coming Friday's Berio. Either side of very pretty 1791 variations on 'Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja' and 'Bei Männern' from Mozart's Magic Flute, they played a selection of Berio's elliptical, effect-full and melodically striking duos and three klezmer pieces (to tie in with that passage in the ever-amazing slow movement of Mahler's First Symphony, which they also demonstrated).
The klezmer arrangements were by a name I blush to say I hadn't heard before, Aleksey Igudesman. His 7/8 version of 'Hava Nagila' makes it sound absolutely fresh; there was a lively wedding number with an out-of-kilter rondo refrain, and a well-tempered meeting of Valkyries and bridesmaids in 'Richard wouldn't like it'.
The Petersburg (Leningrad) born violinist/arranger is well known - though less so in the UK, it seems - as part of a musical comedy duo, Igudesman and Joo (who is as brilliant a pianist as AI is a violinist). Now I don't usually warm to such stuff, despite - or more likely because of - being dragged along to Victor Borge concerts at a young age. Danny told me to go home and look up on YouTube 'Rachmaninov had big hands', which involves Igudesman handing Joo various notched wedges of wood to add a plethora of notes to the C sharp minor Prelude. A clip which gives a better example of both their skills submits Mozart's Rondo alla Turca to orientalisation. Do stick with this longish strand for the klezmer/eastern effect on an old favourite.
There's plenty more worth watching where that came from (try the collaboration with Kremer and Co in 'I will survive'). Anyway, we learnt a lot from Celia and Danny in the conversation which followed their playing. Danny's role as union representative and his knowledge of the politicking reassured us, among other things, that the BBC orchestras will be taking a ten rather than 20 per cent cut; had it been the latter, one of them might not have survived. But a couple of other institutions may not be with us for much longer; it would be presumptuous to name them.
Danny was interesting on one crucial difference between two visiting conductors. The first, who shall also remain nameless though named he was and Danny made clear he certainly respects him, comes to rehearsals with everything already planned out for his interpretation. The other, Haitink, gets the orchestra to play through the work(s) in question, listens to their sound and adapts, which surely gets more inspiring results.
We also talked about contemporary pieces which get the violin to do everything under the sun except play what (perhaps narrowly) we think of as 'violinistically', in other words to make a phrase with the bow on the string. That was very much the impression in two out of the four new (or newish) pieces in the Mercury Quartet's 'Inspired by Debussy' concert at King's Place last Monday. I went with the diplo-mate, who had co-ordinated the event and supported the commissions via EUNIC. The two pieces in question were a short bit of mood-music which might as well have been an improvisation by a Polish composer and a more dynamic journey in Cypriot Evis Sammoutis's Metioron, which started randomly but gradually coalesced into a piano-led scherzo and haunting final slow section.
The real excitement was seeing the youthful commitment the Mercuries (pictured above, and led by Romanian violinist Vlad Maistorovici, who I'm told is a rather brilliant composer in his own right) brought to their contributions. There was also a trio-Nocturne for flute (Ana de la Vega), harp (Claire Iselin) and voice (soprano Patricia Rozario, who had learnt her parts at 24 hours' notice, and seemed totally in command) by Estonian Malle Maltis - pure Debussy pastiche, but superior of its kind; and a short assemblage of fragments, including the only direct reference to Debussy in a descending phrase from Nuages, by Thomas Oehler. The Debussy works we heard were a surprisingly blowsy early song, Flots, palmes, sables, with a strange, rather redundant meeting of piano and harp, and the chimerical Cello Sonata, in which pianist Antoine Francoise especially excelled. An uneven programme, then, but what vivacious guides we had in the performers.