The Lunchtime Series: The Kanneh-Mason Trio, December 14th. 2017

It occurred to me that the two December professional concerts in Leicester, one at DMH and one at the Museum, could have together been given the title’ The times they are a’changin.’ In the first, we had the young woman conductor Elim Chan directing a superb Philharmonia Concert. In the second three even younger musicians, all from the Kanneh-Mason family of Nottingham and playing as the Kanneh- Mason Piano Trio, gave truly astonishing performances of Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op.1 No.3 and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.2.

Classical music has a long history of prodigies, occasionally two or more from the same family. However, as the sell out audience at the Museum bore witness to , never to the best of my knowledge has the classical music scene witnessed a more extraordinary story than the one which emerged after Sheku Kanneh- Mason won the 2016  BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and thus became the first black person to do so.  There followed a BBC documentary about his family  and their passion for classical music, in which it became clear that, though Sheku clearly seemed already capable of having a career on the international stage,  there were other major talents in the family, notably his elder sister, the pianist Isata,  and his elder brother, violinist Braimah, who together with Sheku constituted the Trio.

In a way then one should not have been surprised at the quality of the playing. Of course, the cello playing was a given but one of the finer things about these performances was that it was in perfect accord with the other two players. Then I remembered that one, the pianist Isata, had, as a very young and diminutive girl who at the time was almost dwarfed by the Steinway she was playing,  performed in the Museum a decade ago as one of four finalists of a young  pianist’s Competition held in Uppingham.  I remembered that , whilst three were obviously very good for their age, no such allowances needed to be made for her and afterwards a number in the audience prophesied great things. They were right. She is now, together with her equally talented violinist brother, at the Royal Academy of Music.

No surprise then that we were listening to individual music making of a high order. That said ,though, there was cause for surprise, not to say amazement. Perhaps it was down to long family bonding but the balance, the refinement of the sound, combined above all else with a sense of youthful pleasure at making music resulted in a concert which was very much something else. As I get older, I find that this precious quality found in very talented young performers is worth every bit as much as the supposed wisdom which comes with age. Indeed, increasingly I wonder whether in middle age some fine artists, so concerned have they become to deliver everything in the music, find it difficult to preserve the quality so vital in live performance, a sense of the simple spontaneous joy at the power of great music.

That joy was here very evident from the beginning of the Beethoven. One was immediately struck at times by the liquid tone of the piano and the sense of balance with the other two players. Not that the energy of much of this music was not thrillingly conveyed but what I particularly admired was the way it was being played as early and not middle Beethoven.  Here the performance was at times slightly at odds with the occasional programme note. For instance, in the latter the third movement was described as music which was ‘ tense and edgy’. What was conveyed in this performance was the sheer  high spirits of the music, very much the composer still under the influence of Haydn. I am all for being reminded that the young and even at times the old Beethoven could be as witty and as humorous as his mentor. Again in the last movement the Trio I felt found more variation of dynamics ,of mood, of light and shade than  the movement’s  ‘blunt energy’ referred to in the programme. Conversely , the second theme as played here emerged as rather more than a ‘relaxed interlude’, so delightful was the playing.  However, that said, the eruption towards the end of the movement was played with  an explosive force which did indeed look forward to revolutionary times.

So, it was no surprise that the Trio should prove able to handle the enormous range  of utterance within the  Shostakovich Trio. Here the cello was to the forefront more often and one could see in such moments as the terrifyingly weird cello sound at the opening of the piece and the part the instrument plays in the searing climax towards the end of the last movement just why firstly  Sheku  should have chosen  a Shostakovich  concerto for the BBC final and secondly why he should have won the competition. For a moment one wondered whether the ghost of Rostropovich was amongst us.

However, the work is not a concerto for cello. It covers a huge range of feeling but so often it is music that is raw on the nerves and the composer never flinches from leaving each instrumentalist fearsomely exposed at times. Suffice to say that the composer’s intentions were fearlessly communicated and this listener’s nerves at least were duly shredded. The bitter, sardonic moments in the score were conveyed with cracking force but as impressive was how in the third movement, for instance, the extended construction of the poignant passacaglia was effortlessly maintained. How interesting that Shostakovich and Britten, arguably the two greatest composers of the mid 20c. and who sometime after the composition of this work became close friends, should both have been drawn to this form quite separately.

After a prolonged ovation from the audience, these superbly talented young artists played as an encore  Coleridge-Taylor’s eloquently simple setting of ‘Deep River’, just to remind us perhaps that there has been a past and hopefully will be an expanding future for black classical musicians.

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The Philharmonia- Simon Trpceski, Elim Chan. December 2nd 2017

Once it was quite common to hear conductors when being interviewed referring to the ‘gentlemen of the orchestra’ , the reason being that half the human race was denied work in symphony orchestras for a number of what appeared even then to be utterly phony reasons. For instance, it was declared that a string section with women in it would not have the same power as one with only men! This kind of musical misogyny was I gather still present until comparatively recently in such antediluvian organisations as the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Philharmonia, however, did appoint women musicians quite early on, in the late 50’s or early 60’s. However, apparently all was not entirely sweetness and light. I remember my future wife pointing out to me at one concert that a very attractive young woman with flaming red hair had joined the string section since we had last heard the orchestra. Many years later I read in a history of the orchestra that about this time a new young woman string player in the orchestra had caught the eye of the aged but sometimes manic Klemperer. Whether it was the player my wife had noted history does not tell, though there were few if any others in the orchestra to choose from who quite fitted the anecdote. Whatever, it appears that the besotted conductor apparently demanded during one Edinburgh Festival that , instead of being booked into the best hotel in the city, he should be given a room in the hostel where the orchestra was billeted, backing up his demand with a threat to cancel the concerts if he didn’t get his way. Happily it seems he was eventually pacified and he agreed to remain where he had been put, in his hotel. Not surprisingly then in such a world the further step, that of a woman actually conducting a symphony orchestra, was thought the stuff of madness and so it has largely remained until quite recently. Perhaps only in the 21c has it been generally accepted that gender has nothing to do with the ability to flourish a baton effectively.

Such thoughts occurred when the ever so young looking and petite Elim Chan, in 2014 the first female winner of the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition and here a late substitute for the indisposed Urbanski ,literally ran onto the stage. It was perhaps only natural to wonder whether she would hack it when faced by this, one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

Well, hack it she did. From the very first downbeat, it was clear that here was someone who had very definite ideas about how things should go and  as importantly was able to get an orchestra to be absolutely with her on the musical journey. In Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture with eloquent hand movements she shaped everything with great clarity and much detail which sometimes is passed by here emerged into the light. There was perhaps sometimes a price to be paid in that occasionally the onward narrative and passionate impetus of the work was slightly lost in the desire to reveal the numerous beauties of the score on the way. However, refinement is on balance to be preferred to crash and bash and it was clear that here was a musician to be reckoned with.

Next she proved herself to be a sympathetic accompanist to what some might have thought a red blooded, others a brash performance of the same composer’s first Piano Concerto given by the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski. I inclined to the first viewpoint. What I found particularly interesting and compelling was how different instruments can produce such different outcomes even in the most well known music. Here the pianist elected to play the DMH’s Fazioli , a piano lighter in sound than that produced by the ubiquitous heavyweight Steinways so popular on the circuit. In the past there have been times when the Fazioli has sounded too lightweight for the big 19c heavyweight concertos.  Here ,though, the pianist managed to ride the orchestra without trouble and and there were many compensations arising out of the piano’s clear crystalline tone . One was reminded how refreshing ,exhilarating  and unportentous this concerto can sound , absolutely bursting as it is with fresh ideas. There are enough of these in the first movement alone for a whole work. Also I had forgotten , besides the brilliance and the virtuosity, how many  magical moments there are and not just for the solo instrument. As ever the orchestra’s fine principal flautist Samuel Coles featured not just in this work but throughout the evening. There was, it is true, a touch of the showman about Trpceski but why not? I found his infectious enthusiasm to be in the end irresistible, particularly in such moments as the great melody at the end of the third movement which, played as it was here with such passion by both pianist and orchestra, made for a memorable climax to the work.

Finally, on this Russian/ Shakespearean journey we were given excerpts from Prokofiev’s wonderful music for the Ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Here the conductor’s relish for detail in the scoring really paid off. Rarely have I been so aware of the marvels of this work’s orchestration. The weight of the orchestral sound, characteristically underpinned by bass brass, was astonishing. The death of Tybalt was quite shattering, as in a different way was the tenderness the conductor coaxed from the orchestra in the portrait of Juliet as a young girl and the poignant reprise for a moment in Juliet’s Funeral of the love music. This was a fine performance indeed, underlined by the orchestra, which had been on top form throughout, insisting that the conductor take a bow on her own. How well had she deserved it.

Lunchtime Series: Haffner Wind Ensemble- 30th November 2017

It was good to welcome back the Haffner Wind Ensemble. Even if, unless my memory is failing, it has been some time since this particular ensemble has played here, of course the individual members of the quintet are well known in this part of the world and hence were received as old friends. They have long ago established reputations as superb artists of the very first rank so one expected an hour’s superb playing in a programme both innovative and compelling. And that is what we got. I knew none of the works but each was clearly worth bringing into the light, which in such programmes is by no means always the case.

Firstly, the transcription for woodwind of Beethoven’s String Quintet Op.4, though Nicholas Daniel’s description of its tortuous history I am afraid lost me, in the event was recognisably by the Master’s hand, though at times it seemed derived much from Mozart or Haydn. None the worse for that. In particular one delighted at the crystal clarity of the ensemble’s playing in the outer movements, fully bringing out the composer’s wit. In the deification process that went on in the 19c the puckish Beethoven took a back seat, perhaps rather like Shakespeare’s rude humour becoming almost an embarrassment and resulting in the  expunging of such things as the Porter’s scene in ‘Macbeth’. It was splendid to be reminded just how much laughter was part of the composer’s palette.  Conversely the lovely flute playing in the andante and the drive of the third movement brought into focus a young composer intent on making a splash.

Secondly came Barber’s Summer Music. Barber is a composer clearly being re-evaluated as the avant garde fades into history. Glyndebourne is producing his opera ‘Vanessa ‘ next year and his Violin Concerto is close to becoming a repertory piece. His music seems to me at its best to tap into a rich lyrical seam such as is to be found in the famous vocal setting of Knoxville 1915 where nostalgia for childhood and past times creates in the music an overwhelmingly powerful effect. Summer Music seemed very much in the same vein and vividly portrayed at times the somnolence of a warm summer’s day and the feeling of well being. Something to be savoured, I feel.

Lastl,y we had 15 minutes of a witty set of variations by the 20c. French pianist and composer Jean-Michel Damase, very much in the tradition of music by the composers who called themselves Les Six. Some time ago I heard a concert devoted entirely to French 20c. musical wit and naughtiness and by the end of it felt it had long outstayed its welcome. Not so here. Played with huge panache it was a delightful and perfectly judged end to the concert. Once again the articulation and verve of the playing at times lifted one out of one’s seat.

Speaking of which, sitting as I do in the middle of the Gallery, at times I mildly cursed myself that I had forgotten the power and pungency of a wind ensemble sound in an intimate space and how astringent and piercing in climaxes the combined trebles of flute, oboe and clarinet could  sound close to. It only really mattered in the Barber where at times I had to force myself to imagine the languid atmosphere of the summer’s day referred to in the programme. Next time when the winds come I shall make a point of retreating to the back where I was told distance did indeed lend enchantment!