Corinthian Chamber Orchestra and Michael Seal at St Martin in the Fields on 11 June 2019

Review: Corinthian Chamber Orchestra with trumpeter Alan Thomas and Michael Seal

Sometimes the most pleasant surprises are to be found in the most unexpected places

If the UK orchestra’s marketing departments have to frequently scratch their heads to dream up new ways to entice audiences through the doors (the LPO’s recent reward scheme is a great one by the way), then spare a thought for the slew of amateur bands up and down the country. Not only are they trying to persuade people to attend an event with music that maybe unfamiliar, they’re also doing battle with the perception that an amateur performance won’t be up to scratch in terms of quality.

I say that because I know that I think that myself. Amateur music-making just isn’t going to cut it. I’m not going to be moved. I’m going to walk away dissatisfied.

But as with a lot of things just recently, those assumptions are slowly being challenged. Some of them are being eroded too. Where does our obsession with perfection or elite performance come from? Who says that if its not perfect its not worth listening to? Where does that come from?

Maybe that’s a whole set of questions for another blog post. Or a podcast or something. At the very least, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra‘s concert last night at St Martin in the Fields prompted those same questions.

That’s not to say by the way that the CO’s performance was rough around the edges. Quite the opposite. That was the fundamentally surprising thing about the band. Professionals by day, high quality unpaid amateur musicians (my assumption is they’re from conservatoire backgrounds though I’m not entirely sure) by night. Nine hours or so of rehearsal, then a concert. That’s it.

The aspiration was initially most striking. An arresting and captivating arrangement of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path for, essentially, wind and bass strings by conductor Michael Seal, bringing Janacek’s piano cycle closer in concept to Schoenberg’s first symphony.

Programmatically this seemed like an impressively bold aspiration, met with considerable aplomb by the CO’s two clarinettists for whom key movements saw them play centre stage. It was also a bastard of an arrangement for the bassoons. My money’s on arranger Michael Seal a liking for clarinets more than bassoons.

Come Beethoven’s Eroica in the second half, the stamina of the wind section became apparent and another surprise from this concert: the attention to detail both articulation, ensemble and intonation was obvious. A considerable undertaking, excellently executed that maximised the challenges of St Martins in the Field’s generous acoustic.

Soloist Alan Thomas evoked a celebratory air with Haydn’s joyous trumpet concerto – it’s a rare thing I actually sit in an audience and a wide warm smile stretches across my face – and although the large string section sometimes felt a little clunky in places, there was still a skip and a bounce in proceedings to keep things moving in the first and third movements.

The strings shone in the Beethoven. There was a ferociousness to the opening movement, an enthusiasm articulated through dramatic dynamic contrast, and a rich range of colours. With my head down listening attentively, there seemed little evidence that this was anything other than a collection of professional musicians playing a low-key gig in a church.

Personally, I think the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra should just drop the amateur tag in the biography. I like the idea that there could be a brand of music-making powered by musicians who have entirely different day jobs. What a call-to-action that would be for music education.

The Corinthian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal embark on a week-long tour of engagements in Spain next week. Follow their progress on social media with the hashtag #CCOOnTour

Review: Capucon plays Bartok Violin Concerto No. 1 and No. 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Péter Eötvös

A mixed experience. Strong playing from the strings, a beautifully rich tone from Capucon, but some difficulties with balance which didn’t really get corrected until the last work in the programme.

Capucon plays with a warm tone throughout this mercurial material. Sometimes the orchestra swamps in the fortissimos. The generous acoustic in the Grimaldi Forum highlights some moments of great precision in the opening movement – one particular chord with triangle was exquisite.

But the balance between soloist and orchestra wasn’t consistent and didn’t favour the solo line necessarily. It did settle down towards the end of the first movement.

The second movement in comparison is musically difficult to follow. The material creeps along, the underlying narrative structure of the movement difficult to decipher. It felt like what seemed like an unedifying work on a first listen hadn’t necessarily been given due attention to underline its central ideas.

The battle between sections of the orchestra seemed to continue Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s a well-known work brimming with recognisable tunes and heartwarming evocations of a bygone era most of us can only perceive. It showed the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current calling card: a strong vibrant string section that works hard to create a wide variety of compelling colours and textures.

Consistently throughout this performance and in Bartok Violin No. 2 the strings delivered in the generous acoustic, but this was at the expense of the woodwind section who seemed to struggle cutting across the band.

This I took to be down to the conductor Péter Eötvös who (after a similar experience watching him conduct the Philharmonia recently) I remain unconvinced about in terms of direction. It’s difficult from an audience members point of view to know 100% what a conductor provides an orchestra. We the audience don’t get the full picture – only the back or the side.

There were moments when it felt like details like dynamic contrast, balance between sections and detailed attention to the ends of phrases had been overlooked.

This was the case during the fourth movement when the counter-melody in the pizzicato celli almost seemed to go overlooked. Later in the third movement, declamatory statements didn’t appear quite as doom-laden as I’ve heard in other performances. The beginning of phrases seemed to lack the attack I’ve come to expect.Some of the drama was lost.

It made me wonder whether Eostvosworkman like conducting style meant the finer points were lost a little. Similarly, some of the watery textures in Bartok’s orchestration didn’t come across quite so fluidly at the beginning of the third movement.

Credit where its undoubtedly due though: the bassoons in the second movement were something to behold. And whilst the dynamic range of the string section wasn’t as marked as I personally would have liked, there was simply no doubt that the section delivered, especially on the G-string.

Bartok’s second violin concerto is immediately more interesting in terms of material. The first movement is more cohesive – Bartok’s juxtaposition of material combined with seamless transitions makes the argument easier to follow and the end product more satisfying to listen to.

The balance between the orchestra and soloist was strikingly different too.

Capucon is captivating. He has an air of the Candyman from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory about him. Proud, determined, and sensitive with a seductively infectious enthusiasm. Another mannerism I noted during this performance – the stiff leg kick thing he does from time to time is weirdly satisfying to see. He was doing a similar thing during the encore when sat towards the back of the firsts , momentarily reposition ing himself in the chair when he’s tense with unspent energy.

The second movement confirms Bartok’s material in this work makes this concerto far more compelling. Exquisite playing. Capucon’s tone rung out again, every note ‘bang on’ every time, positioned right in the centre. Here he created and sustained the magic right up until the end of the second movement. The silent transition to the final movement was a beautiful piece of ballet in itself.

Review: Manchester Collective at King’s Place

If it’s art it’s going to make me think. That’s my present rule of thumb. And art, I’m reminded this evening, extends beyond the stage. It’s often to be found in the experience that surrounds a concert.

Manchester Collective’s mixed programme of contemporary, commissioned and new works was arresting, compelling and visceral. Less concert more live performance playlist, there were moments in the first half when the enthusiastic and appreciative applause from the near-capacity audience interrupted my train of thought.

Textures, looping melodic cells, three dimensional sound, and live sound production pushed me in directions I wasn’t expecting to go. I felt at one with the art – something new to explore that connected with my emotions in a refreshingly immediate way. I was in an imaginary world created just for me. Mild sensory deprivation caused by the black curtains and focussed lighting – we might well have been in a TV studio. When unusual sounds swirl all around you it doesn’t take much to get into flow and immerse yourself in the experience.

At the same time I felt like an imposter.

This may in part be down to some pre-concert conversations I engaged in, one in particular about how I reckoned that people like me (who emote unabashed about things they respond to) are at odds with the edgier spaces where contemporary music authentically resides. It’s not ‘cool’ to wax lyrical I told myself. An odd thought to grapple with given that I felt welcomed, was enjoying the experience of hearing such a carefully chosen selection of sounds, and left eager to hear more.

There is a vibe to the good kind of contemporary music concerts – a self-assuredness – which is completely at odds with the nervous hand-wringing I detect in the conventional ‘classical’ world. This apparent self-confidence shifts my perspective. Contemporary musicians know their audience well, and the connections they make and the conversations had reflect this. There’s no need to cajole in the contemporary music world. Unbridled imaginations make the product a tantalising prospect amongst a niche and committed audience. Marketing isn’t something that is brought in to reflect the product; the product markets itself from inception.

There was a meditative quality to the entire programme. Total immersion meant that any interruption to my music-infused introspection – say, like applause – felt like an imposition. That speaks volumes to the programming. What I want next is to experience that same programme in a physical space that enhances the sound-world the music creates – Peckham’s invigorating rawness makes South East London a must-visit destination for the Manchester Collective. Alexandra Palace, Wilton’s Music Hall (maybe), or even a disused underground station (I’ve no idea whether that’s practicable), would create an even more intense sensory experience.

Jonathan Harvey’s Ricecare absorbing, Reich’s Violin Phase electric, and Vessel’s The Birth of the Queen utterly enthralling. What I heard of Daniel Elms’ 100 Demons had a Reich-feel to it. All of it the kind of thing you didn’t realise you needed to experience. Especially appreciated the austere post-war labarotory-style lighting – gave proceedings a warehousy feel. I wonder whether there’s scope to present the programme without a break.

Review: Company (London 2018)

Switching genders in the current West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company enriches the narrative, and makes the central character of Bobby both more plausible and more relatable.

Rosalie Craig is a strong presence on stage who sings with precision, power and warmth, characterising Bobby as someone trying to make sense of the crazed and crazy world that surrounds her.

In that way, Craig’s Bobby appears more authentic compared to male-led productions of the show. A woman looking on the awkward dysfunction of so many of her friends relationships makes the story (such as it is) more believable and engaging, possibly because it simulatenously distracts from the lack of a conventional story arc.

Rosalie Craig doesn’t overplay the pity or the craziness, leaving those around her to show their reality. In comparison to previous male-led productions I’ve seen, Rosalie Craig succeeds in playing a role in which the central character is a mediator between the story and the audience.

She also sings like a dream: incredible precision and warmth; able to deploy power only when its absolutely needed.

Jonathan Bailey (above, far right) brings remarkable energy to the stage for the pre-wedding meltdown his character Jamie embarks upon. I’m not entirely sure how Bailey has sustained that level of commitment (on a par with Imelda Staunton’s Rose in Gypsy, 2015) throughout the eight week run so far – it must be punishing. In ensemble numbers that energy melds well. On its own, I sometimes found it difficult to keep my eyes on the stage; I wasn’t entirely sure whether this was because of the brilliant characterisation or whether the character was being played a little too big for the space.

In amongst an entire cast of strong performances, Richard Fleeshman triumphed as an awkward but lovable Andy from the moment the air steward appeared from behind a doorway.

The character’s nervousness around Bobby subverted expectations and challenged assumptions. Instead of a male-lead pitying the stereotype of a ditzy female air stewardess, Bobby asserts control over the situation, taming the anxious Andy.

The deftly choreographed complex montage that follows whilst they’re in bed together reveals the complexities of Bobby’s character, her relationship with Andy and the influence her friends’ dysfunctional relationships have on her outlook. This mixture of passion, confidence, and vulnerability makes Rosalie Craig’s Bobby far more relatable.

A cohesive approach to production saw a beautiful melding of music and set design in the show’s defining number, setting a lounge-feel Ladies Who Lunch in a plausibly present-day setting. Sondheim royalty Patti Lupone undoubtedly raises the cheers amongst the musical theatre stalwarts throughout the show, but it wasn’t until her solo number that I felt she was giving me something that mirrored Rosalie Craig’s performance. The shift from the conclusion of Ladies Who Lunch to the remaining dialogue of the scene was a gratifying illustration of why Lupone is so revered.

There was only one element that needed tweaking. In ensemble numbers some of the mid-range of voices was subsumed in the mix of the live band, meaning that a lot of the diction and vocal articulation was lost in the accompanying music. Hardly a massive problem, I know. Not insurmountable either.

Honourable mentions to Gavin Spokes as Harry (your voice is gorgeous sir), and Matthew Seadon-Young whose beguiling Harry combined bewildered nerd with expertly contrived nonchalance.

Review: Our Classical Century, Gershwin Discovery Concert, and The Prince and the Composer

I was dubious about Our Classical Century when I attended the launch event a few weeks back. I couldn’t really discern the impetus for the season, beyond it being a way of bringing Radio 3, BBC Two and BBC Four closer together and providing genre-based content to populate the new BBC Sounds world.

What I saw of the opening episode of the Our Classical Century series and what I heard from the panel discussion at the launch raised more questions about the season’s over-arching editorial strategy. Skepticism led me to conclude that the year-long classical music features and documentaries season was probably not made for people like me.

Our Classical Century is the BBC answering calls for classical music outside of the Proms season to be better represented in terms of scope and quality. In that respect, it’s a good thing. But, it also illustrates the fundamental problem the broadcaster faces. By advocating classical music to new audiences the BBC necessarily has to create programming that appeals to the widest possible not-necessarily knowledgeable audience.

That means the end product will always fall short of the kind of content classical music buffs will naturally seek out, because it’s sharing knowledge buffs already know. Just by virtue of the programme being made by the BBC, people like are always going to be disappointed it doesn’t go far enough.

It certainly can’t be said to be dumbed down programming, not by any means. But, there are moments in Our Classical Century feels as though it’s been pulled in so many different directions at the commissioning stage, that in the end there’s insufficient time available to go in deep.

I’m still not entirely convinced about co-presenter Lenny Henry’s contribution to the programme necessarily works either. I get why he’s there, but there are moments in his everyman role when his presence on-screen actually feels a little awkward. The energy returns whenever Suzy Klein appears. No surprise, Klein is an experienced broadcaster. Unexpectedly, Henry’s delivery feels a little too earnest.

Based on the first episode, the Discovery Concerts that compliment the four-part Our Classical Century series promise to be a more fulfilling watch.

A lot of this is down to the format: an unashamed visual programme note providing historical context, and spotlighting detail in the work, before a live recording performance of the work in question.

In the case of the opening episode – George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – the detail revealed around the opening clarinet solo and writing for saxophone trio felt like the right amount of under-the-bonnet stuff to satisfy people like me and feed the curious and the unfamiliar. That the programme didn’t shy away from spending 45 minutes analysing it this way was a real boon. Presenter Josie D’Arby is particularly good too, combining genuine curiosity with an infectious warmth. She is adept at establishing great rapport on screen that looks authentic.

The BBC has also repeated John Bridcut’s documentary about Prince Charles’ love for the music of Hubert Parry – The Prince and the Composer – from 2016. It’s always a pleasure to hear John’s voice –  and his eye for visual storytelling makes for compelling viewing. I had no idea until I watched this documentary that Hubert Parry wrote any symphonies. As Prince Charles points out in the documentary, that means there’s a wealth of unfamiliar music to explore for the first time.

Our Classical Century continues until June 2019 – broadcast dates available on the BBC website.