Classical: Percy's great adventure

THE GRAINGER EVENT ST JOHN'S SMITH SQUARE, LONDON
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The Independent Culture
A CLASSICAL music event concluding with massed audience whistling of "Colonel Bogey"? It could mean only one thing: the iconoclastic spirit of Percy Aldridge Grainger, Australia's first musical genius, was abroad.

Not least among the instigators of Grainger's recent and welcome revival has been the pianist Penelope Thwaites, and this weekend of concerts, workshops, talks, demonstrations and general exuberance was largely her idea. Three daytime sessions included a visual tour of the Grainger Museum in Melbourne (the composer's extraordinary tribute to himself), demonstrations of his weird microtonal "butterfly piano", and even weirder whistling and shrieking "free music machines".

The Percy Grainger Chamber Orchestra, under Joe Conway, gave some of his better known pieces in performances that showed attention to Grainger's meticulous markings, while recollections of Grainger from friends and relatives added a personal touch - extracts at one point from a radio interview by John Amis created an almost uncanny impression of the composer's own presence at St John's.

A very enjoyable workshop with the BBC Singers and a cheerful and workmanlike Bo Holten was interspersed with a vigorous rendition of the "The Merry Wedding" by the Chapman Studio Soloists and the pianist Antony Gray, plus a commendably clear and disciplined performance of a Bach transcription by the Eton Keyboard Ensemble.

The real musical meat of the occasion came in the two evening concerts, plus a splendid opening recital from the Kneller Hall Band, who gave full range to Grainger's special skill in wind and brass writing.

On Saturday Della Jones, Stephen Varcoe, James Gilchrist and Penelope Thwaites gave an enthralling programme of Grainger's songs, ranging from some of his most glorious folk song arrangements, through his remarkable settings of Kipling, written at the age of 16 or so, to the excruciatingly poignant tribute to the memory of his mother, The Power of Love. The effect of the closing "Now, O now I needs must part" (from Dowland) was moving indeed.

By Sunday evening exuberance was the order of the day, when Penelope Thwaites was joined by John Lavender, Wayne Marshall and other players at three Steinway grands in a programme that included the immortal bugbear, "Country Gardens" and a premiere of The Widow's Party March, concluding with an 18-handed arrangement from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and the aforesaid theme from Bridge over the River Kwai. The audience cheered their approval - no doubt looking forward to another Grainger weekend next year.

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