Sunday 25 June 2017

Music for a few

Not that any of these fine performers would have had any objections to playing and singing to as many folk as possible. But I count myself immensely privileged to have been among a select crowd for three heartwarming events over the past month-and-a-bit. First came my young friend Ed Picton-Turbervill performing Bach's Goldberg Variations in the comfortable surroundings of the Master's Lodge within St John's College Cambridge prior to the launch of a beautiful and original book (more on that anon).

Then I was in the lucky position, following our very own Europe Day Concert, of hearing four more extraordinary musicians from the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in a Nordic programme at St Clement Danes' Church, starting with American soprano Francesca Chiejina accompanied by Artistic Director David Gowland (photos of this event courtesy of Roger Way).

Last week, on a hot evening, a standing crowd mostly made up of so-called 'classical industry' folk was supremely responsive to the irresistible exuberance and art-concealing-art sophistication of Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike and his 'Alehouse Boys' in another evening of hyper-crossover at the very highest level (photos in this instance by Matthew Long).

Ed had already played the Goldbergs once already before a packed house on the previous evening. This one was for friends and family, lucidly paced so that brilliant fanfares really did steer us towards a natural ending. He speaks so well on music too, and justified prefacing the Bach with the favourite piece about which he'd written the dissertation which went towards his double first. It's one I love to bits too, Brahms's A major Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2 and with a flair for potent programming, EPT went straight on to the Bach, having asked us not to applaud.

We left the family to a picnic which eventually got broken up by a heavy downpour and went for sausages in a nearby pub, then I to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, about which I should write more, but here in the meantime - in case I don't - is a view from above of the totem pole and other ethnographic treasures in the MAA's big upstairs room.

Back to the Master's Lodge for a reception and presentation. Facsimiles were generously provided for those of us who didn't have the dosh for either version of the big specially-printed original. Which was open at the end of the dining table where our copies were also lodged for collection.

Talking Through Trees is a free ramble - mythos rather than logos, the author tells us - around the splendid specimens, great and small, of St John's substantial territory by the Cam, with which EPT as arborialist supreme (climbing included) entered into intimate communication while an organ scholar at the college (he's now studying in Heidelberg and debating whether to go into environmental work or train as a doctor).

Each short paragraph has a number by it indicating its place in the chronological order of writing  (beginning, consequently with 219 followed by 79, 179, 80 and so on. I believe this was a hint taken from How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence by Christopher Potter, who came to lunch at our place with Ed and his then partner Kristaps). What kind of a work is it? 'As a book is to a booklet, so this "treetise" is to a pamphlet. It is therefore a "pamph" '.

EPT is often poetic. I give you a brief sample, about the Wordsworth Oak: 'The finest feature of this Oak is undoubtedly its bark. Under tremendous pressure as it expands outward from the cambium, it buckles and snaps into rocky canyons, rivers of clefts that spread across the smooth surface of the tree'. But he can also be witty - having quoted four lines of Wordsworth which, after lofty inspirations by Gerald Manley Hopkins and Ovid via Ted Hughes, made me titter, he comments 'If it were not by Wordsworth, I would never have put that nasty piece of doggerel into my pamph'. Here's the author alongside his original benefactor Lady Margaret Beaufort.

When six years ago (ouch!) I went to Eton to talk on Prokofiev at this enterprising scholar's instigation - his father told me at this meeting that he'd pushed him forward after my Salome talk at Covent Garden to make the invitation - he told me he was saving his pennies to buy the very special books produced by a press in Wales. This was The Old Stile Press, and this is his first publication in conjunction with them, generously funded by the moneybags college and illustrated with woodcuts by Angela Lemaire, a regular OSP collaborator.

The perfect excursion ended with a special Evensong in St John's Chapel. As I've remarked before, the choir and its director are infinitely superior to those of King's College (sorry, Father Andrew). Once in a while they incorporate a Bach cantata with college instrumentalists into the service. This time we got not only 'Bleib bei uns', BWV 6, but also Vivaldi's Magnificat and, to frame the service, the Adagio from Bach's Concerto for Three Violins, BWV1064 and the Overture from the Orchestral Suite No. 4. Then we left the young 'uns to their parting and went over the road for a cheap and cheerful Chinese with Fr Andrew (who's just, incidentally, been filmed singing with Courtney Act. You'll either know that name or you won't. Suffice it to say that Season Nine of the series in which Australian drag superstar Courtney was a finalist way back when has just come to an end. I can't say I cared who won this time, but certainly the best lip-syncher took the crown).

The profane was the order of the afternoon at St Clement Danes on 9 June, though the power of love is well expressed by Sibelius and Grieg, among others. And how rapturously through the lyric-soprano gold of Francesca Chiejina, starting the programme with songs from  Grieg's gorgeous Op. 48.

Any fast vibrato here is offset by luminosity; I can't wait to hear her in Strauss. And as the picture tells us, she really engages with the audience. It's something that Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim and Ukrainian baritone (or so he now advertises himself; I would say the near-miss with 'Erlkönig' and the lower-register beauty of his Lange Müller 'Diset hede' suggests he's still very much a bass-baritone) Yuriy Yurchuk have yet to do (Yurchuk pictured below). Augen! Eyes, please, gentlemen!

But that's why they are, or in Yurchuk's case have/has been, on the YPYAP programme, to develop their performing skills. And facing an audience at closer range in a song recital is perhaps more daunting than acting on stage. The quality of their instruments was never in doubt for a moment, and even if Kim's 'Ich liebe dich'/''Jeg elsker dig' seemed a bit stretched out for the spontaneous effusion of rapturous love it ought to be, the climax was pure operatic-tenor bliss. Here he is with conductor-repetiteur James Hendry, who made exquisite work of two Aquarelles by Niels Gade.

Gowland was impressive, too, in Stenhammer's epic B minor Fantasy, though the sound of the piano made me guess either Yamaha or Fazioli; Yamaha it was. Never understood why Richter favoured it for Rachmaninov. The rebuilt Wren church acoustics are over-reverberant, too, but it's a splendid place to be with its RAF accoutrements and what I also guessed correctly to be a Grinling Gibbons pulpit (sadly not quite visible here).

And so to a venue with which I fell in love immediately, the Bush Hall, a converted Edwardian dance venue on the Uxbridge Road which I have my eye on for a future party. The ensuing photo courtesy of the BH website.

Not only was this the perfect place for Bjarte Eike's blissfully unamplified 'Alehouse Boys' - in other words players from his Barokksolistene and friends - but the atmosphere was one of the most extraordinary I've experienced in any sort of concert. I've heard them in action twice before, and each time - at the Spitalfields Festival and in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse after Barokksolistene's The Image of Melancholy programme - it was wonderful, but this rose if possible even higher.

First, let it be said (again) that all the artists are not only at the top of their game but absolutely charming - and not just the Norwegians (I have to say that for me the cherry on the cake this time was the absence of a certain English vocalist who is not quite in the same league and lacks their total ease. Note to players: stick to the unique vocalising of viola-player Per T Buhre). You do wonder whether a woman or two might join the boys, but as they're all in touch with their feminine side there are no worries about it being just a 'blokey evening'.

Add to that an audience of folk in the know, ready to go with anything, and you had the most amazing symbiosis - we 'Prommers' knew when to clap along, when to keep silence on a moment's notice, how to respond so that the 'magic triangle' Britten talks about of composer, artist and listener really was at its most magnetic.

The basic numbers were the mix as I've experienced it twice before, but the special charm and 'liveness' is in the improvisations. I well remember how Fredrik Bock can turn his guitar flamenco, what artistry we get from double-bass player Johannes Lundberg, the exhilarating foot-stamping and leaping of genuine oddball Steven Player.

I'd hoped to take along two of the godchildren, who couldn't make it in the end, but 17-year old Lucien with his mum Clare, who's disappointed to know that Bjarte is a married man, along with the two very switched-on sons of my friend Joe Smouha, left me in no doubt that this absolutely works for everyone. A stunning evening. The band is back at the Globe in October, this time in the big O rather than the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but they also need and deserve a late-night gig at the Proms. In the meantime, do buy their CD. I have certain reservations about the vocals for reasons stated above, but I've made my own mix with soulful numbers from Eike's CD masterpiece, The Image of Melancholy, and that to me is perfection.

What better way to end than with a YouTube 'taster' for the disc which includes several very typical improvisations? Obviously they have to issue a DVD next. But being there's the thing.


Susan Scheid said...

Quite the whirlwind tour! You are so right about Francesca Chiejina--even from her photographs, and even before I read your own comment, this was clear. I'm reminded of Julia Bullock, a fast-rising soprano over here, whose easy charm is as captivating as her singing prowess. Have you come across her at all?

David said...

Yes - in the Barbican performance of Doctor Atomic, where I seem to have described her as 'magnificent':

Susan said...

Ah, indeed you did! Great review, and of course I loved this: "But then the elephant in the room is the absence of that extraordinary poet Alice Goodman, who provided two of the 20th century's best librettos - yes, Hofmannsthal-worthy - for the two previous operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, and, alas, withdrew from this project at a crucial stage."

David said...

Great Alice! Adams' true Hofmannsthal and Da Ponte. Struck me last night at a superlative Grange performance of Britten's Albert Herring that Eric Crozier was his best librettist, even if one wished Auden might have continued after Paul Bunyan (a more acquired taste).

Susan said...

I've yet to hear/see Albert Herring. Clearly a must!

David said...

Absolutely - what a treat you have in store!