Tuesday 16 May 2017
Europe Day Concert 2017: depth and range
There, bang in the middle of what by common consent turned out to be the best Europe Day Concert to date, was the world premiere of a piece which went as deep and as high as anything on the programme: Stranded by Matthew Kaner, in which the solo violinist finally breaks away from the combative orchestra and walks offstage, still playing. A surprise which no-one expected and which in the programme note the composer hadn't divulged, but everyone got the point. Arriving at St John's Smith Square halfway through the afternoon rehearsal to hear the already great Benjamin Baker and conductor Jonathan Bloxham - my favourite twentysomething musicians* and I pictured at the after-concert party below -
rehearsing the new work with the Northern Chords Festival Orchestra, I was taken aback by the ravishing beauty of the sound (Matt's orchestration is a wonder) and the impact of the playing.
An email comment, one of many from friends, sums it up: 'a superb band - quite the best I've heard in its depth and range'. Photos here all by Jamie Smith, with the exception of the below, composer concentrating at the rehearsal, by me.
And it all went beautifully. People wept, and not just at the emotion of standing, as we always do, for Beethoven's Ode to Joy at the end of the concert (I have to add that the orchestral statement of the Ninth Symphony's big tune has never sounded better either, even if it had an extra kick after Macron used it two days earlier). The emotional depths were especially sounded in 'The Oak Tree' from Sibelius's peerless incidental music to The Tempest, Ariane's Farewell from Martinů's eponymous late masterpiece with Maltese soprano Nicola Said rising to divadom - how she's come on even in the year since I saw her perform the role at the Guildhall School -
and the metamorphosis/resurrection, Respighi's 'The Birth of Venus' from his Botticelli Triptych, swelling and all-enveloping. Again, an e-mail accolade is worth reproducing: 'it was an extraordinary evening, beautiful, at times so exquisite (Martinů's aria) it actually hurt, dignified, wrenching'.
The theme was 'islands', Malta currently holding the presidency (the opening speeches, from Norman Hamilton, Maltese High Commissioner, and Christine Dalby, Acting Head of the European Commission Representation in the UK, were succinct and very much to the point). The programme looked good on paper. But in practice it went further than expected - so much could be taken as metaphor for the tragedy of the UK's imminent departure, even if it wasn't consciously planned as such. Again there was general agreement that not a piece failed to make its mark.
Even Maltese composer Charles Camilleri's 'Nocturne' from the Malta Suite - not the piece originally desired - provided a melancholy showcase for Jonathan's wonderful strings, making so much sound for the grouping 22.214.171.124.2 and all the nimbler as a result, as the iridescent variety of Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture immediately established. Communication and flexibility, assets which Jonathan has developed amazingly quickly - he's now assistant to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - caught everyone around me, I could see, and didn't let go until over an hour later. Sounds as if I'm exaggerating but I speak the truth when I say I haven't heard a livelier or more gorgeous-sounding performance of the Mendelssohn classic.
The strings were lovely and bouncy for Mozart, too, and we had absolute top quality from two singers currently on the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, Irish soprano Jennifer Davis and tenor Thomas Atkins (a Kiwi, like Ben). He took the less florid version of Idomeneo's 'Fuor del mar' but still adorned the da capo with extra flashes of brilliance; Jennifer had Ilia's tender-sad Act Three aria 'Zeffiretti lusinghieri', a neat follow-on to the natural settings of the soprano and tenor numbers from Nielsen's Springtime on Funen. That was deliciously done, too - Siri Fischer Hansen, administrator of JPYAP, attested to the excellent delivery of her native Danish - and turned out to be the favourite of quite a few folk in the audience. One spectator pointed out that it was all the more beautiful for being accompanied by the almost rustic vision of trees and sinking sun through the big window behind the orchestra.
Soprano and tenor rose to the French ardour of the Act 2 love duet for Nadir and Leila in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, too - Thomas is going to be singing Don José in the Royal Opera's Peter Brook Tragédie de Carmen, and I can hear an ideal Micaëla in Jennifer already.
I still think there's no greater demonstration of genius than Sibelius's distillation of a lifetime's experience in the Tempest music. He was such a master of the miniature, and to my mind Song II, a canny orchestral adaptation of Ariel's 'Where the bee sucks', is its epitome: two short verses, the second first abbreviated and then given a surprise extension, wryly singing on two clarinets with the lightest string bounce underneath, all in a minute. Joe Shiner, destined to be either a soloist or an outstanding principal in one of the world's best orchestras (or both), and his colleague Greg Hearle brought more subtlety to their parts than I've ever heard on recorded interpretations, and Joe's belated solo in The Hebrides, as in his performance with the London Firebird Orchestra last year, brought tears to the eyes; Jonathan let him take all the time in the world over it. Joe was also the orchestral fixer, working flat out beyond the call of duty.
Flautist Alena Lugovkina - on trial, I understand, for the Royal Opera Orchestra - also excelled, and leader Zoë Beyers got to take over from Ben at key points in Stranded. Quite apart from the beauty of seeing a group of young players really enjoying and putting across their artistry - they later said how struck they were by the quiet intensity of the audience and the ecstatic reception it gave them - they were truly representing Europe, with an Estonian violinist (Marike Kruup), a Bulgarian cellist (the outstanding Michael Petrov), a Polish harpist (Zuzanna Olbrys), a Spanish first horn (Francisco Gomez Ruiz) and other nationalities in the mix (I haven't pinpointed them all). Delighted also that the other good friend I've made from first acquaintance at the Pärnu Festival in 2015, Sophia Rahman, was the pianist.
Everything went smoothly, receptions included. Now everyone can enjoy the aftermath of a job superbly done and look forward to the CD.
*Left out one other - the prodigiously talented Ed Picton-Turbervill, formerly organ scholar at St John's Cambridge who graduated with a Double First in Music, celebrating the launch of his book on the trees of the Backs by playing the Goldberg Variations this coming Saturday. The Bach evensong following an afternoon picnic and the launch at St John's may involve him too, I don't know. Genius, anyway. Ought to include my dearly beloved godson Alexander Lambton, too, whose sax contributions to various classy bands are well above the average.