Somewhere roundabout the last day of Calamity Jane (see two posts ago), I managed to successfully apply for a project booking with Outcry Ensemble. This I consider a bit of a feather in my cap, since their players are mostly recent conservatoire graduates and the ensemble bills itself as a springboard for professional classical music careers.
I think the original spur to this was probably being booked to perform at Temple Church on the Thursday evening (we’re now up to 10 days ago; I had a very different performance the Thursday following!). However, the orchestra had decided to bolster this with performing the same programme the night before at St John’s Notting Hill, where they are resident. Rehearsals were the two evenings before that, so I went effectively straight into this from the Lincolnshire concert, with 48 hours from showing up to get performance-ready.
For this purpose the ensemble were a string orchestra, plus two trumpet soloists for a new commission of which more anon. Besides that, the programme was a Mozart divertimento, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, and the Tchaikovsky string serenade. The Mozart and Tchaik both contain beautiful and well-known music, and some dizzyingly fast passages that are not extremely difficult of themselves but I was still having some difficulty reading, let alone playing, clearly at the ambitious (though not inappropriate) tempi by Wednesday night.
Britten’s composition may be opus 10 and his first to attract significant attention, but it has the intricate challenges of both musicianship and string-specific technique that I have come to expect from the composer (playing Les Illuminations last year, for example): there are false harmonics, extremely rapid ‘quasi guitar’ chord strumming, some calls for playing on a specific string that leave the left hand a very long way round the instrument, and a fugue which divides even the second violins (where I was playing, to my surprise – there must have been an oversupply of violists) into a solo and two other divisi, with entries moving around all twelve key-centres and almost all rhythmic starting-points possible in a fast 12/8.
The new commission, by Ben Gaunt, who I recommend researching, was entitled The Trumpet Fists of St Nicholas and drew inspiration from the parody rituals of ‘boy bishop’ festivities (essentially a medieval, Catholic, specifically ecclesiastical variation on the lords of misrule / authority subverted form of limited mockery of power) and from some recorded instances of fisticuffs over heretical theology at early church councils! Significant use was made at key points – particularly the beginning and the end – of sounds that exist on the border between notes and white noise: drawing the bow across the bridge, drumming fingers on the body of the instrument, vocal ‘sss’ and ‘tktktk’ noises, and climactic calls for freely improvised bursts of notes within a given pitch range. The parodic element was partly expressed through one of the trumpets using 20s jazz style muted growls and wahs to attention-grabbing effect. I tend to be of the opinion, however, that the measure of a contemporary composer’s successful artistry is not their ability to produce ‘experimental’ effects, but their ability to integrate them with well-handled more traditional music; the principle that you should know the rules to break them consciously. And here, the counterpoint (sometimes literally) to the parodic and violent elements, representing perhaps the original ceremonies being subverted, was a vein of modal-sounding speech-rhythmic harmony that could easily have passed for a homophonic chant-based passage in a late Renaissance mass setting – a sign of a composer who has done his homework, so to speak.
Ironically, if I leave aside my own playing (which I flatter myself was much more controlled in the second concert), the Wednesday night may have been the better event. St John’s has a fairly uncluttered layout and only a moderately reverberant acoustic, which corresponded well to the clarity of a medium-sized (23 players) string orchestra and to the sense of community of a concert played in all black, with spoken introductions and most players standing (also, interestingly for a programme with no specialist early music intentions, with violins split right and left and lower instruments in between, rather than a clockwise scale of descending pitch – an arrangement which seems to be ever more popular). Said sense of connection was helped by a relatively small nave with an impressively numerous audience for a midweek evening (then again, maybe avoiding competition is the thing).
Temple Church is so called because it serves the Middle and Inner (I think) Temples, two of the Inns of Court which were historically the only places to train and qualify in English law, of one of which all English barristers are at least nominally still members, and which still house a great many law students and great legal minds. I had not ventured into the Inns of Court before (had not really realised they still existed, my knowledge of them being primarily from Victorian novels), and I would say my impression is that of an Oxford college writ large – an old-established Oxford college before almost all of them started charging for entry. There are the same imposing courtyards as main tool of layout, the same sense that one is in an institution and may be told to leave at any point, the same surprising degree of being cut off from the bustle just outside (the bustle more emphatic here, as I reached the Temples virtually directly from the Strand at late rush hour), the same iron-fenced gardens for the use of members only – and the same risk of finding oneself still inside after the public gates, even on what appear to be roads, have been locked and one in unsure how to find a useable exit!
As a performance venue, this church might have suited Tallis better than a piece referencing his sound-world, or than Mozart’s exceptionally lucid string writing (the divertimenti are probably so called to always enable them to straddle chamber and orchestral performance). The acoustic was much longer and richer – gorgeous for some things, but requiring a holding back of tempo in some places and just occasionally making it difficult to lock into a collective tempo. More to the point though, Temple Church is one of those places which seems to have become almost as much museum as place of worship (there were large interpretive panels on the wall beyond which the choral foundation do their work outside of services, narrating ‘Templars” involvement in twentieth-century geopolitics), and we players found ourselves distributed around a rather complicated altar area which had probably always had an ornamental rather than functional number of pillars, to which had been added display cases containing a pair of historic statues. The net result was that, from the back of the short second violin column, I could see most of my fellow players and the conductor, but almost none of the audience. They also had about double the size space to distribute themselves around compared to the previous night’s, and I fancy there were slightly fewer of them. The result was a peculiar feeling of almost playing in a different room, as if for a recording or broadcast. This may well have helped with calming nerves over tackling a difficult programme I had found stressful over the previous three days of the project, while conscious of being tired from my long run of performances; but it did lend something slightly dissatisfying to the performance for me, though I cannot fault the audience’s appreciation (except that they were not sure Ben Gaunt’s piece had finished till the conductor turned round, which I think shows less than the maximum possible engagement / attention – it has a perfectly clear if abrupt ending).
In any case, that performance brought me through to a whole two days off from music other than private lessons and practice – leading to the material for more blog posts.