Classical Review: Biker bassoonists from hell

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The Independent Culture


BIKERS AND bassoonists stole the show at Monday's Philharmonia concert when the American composer Michael Daugherty had four leather- clad Hell's Angels idle down the gangways to thundering drums, amble on to the stage and set about his latest bassoon extravaganza. Although neither bikers nor Hell's Angels (at least, not as far as I know), the Philharmonia's Meyrick Alexander, Robin O'Neill, Michael Cole and Gordon Laing had mastered the requisite gestures to perfection. Daugherty likens the bassoon to the drag-pipe on a Harley-Davidson - an obvious turn-on, and a useful inspiration.

There were canons, fugues and polyrhythms, growling low notes and unexpected highs, with the Angels depicted as tanked up, dreaming, playful or violent.

Daugherty is a master of the musical comic strip - Spike Jones spiced with Stravinsky - playfully provocative and with a confident command of orchestral resources. He backed his snorting foursome with sliding strings, swirling harps and heavy artillery of percussion. The thundersheet took a good thrashing from a metal chain, and the timpanist Andrew Smith must have developed gladiatorial biceps overnight. But the bassoons took centre stage, much as they had done an hour earlier (in a special pre- concert event) when the composer Tim Steiner directed 20 fledgeling bassoonists in his epic Bassoon Fantastic. Again, the players descended the gangways, this time warbling through reeds like migrating birds. The gifted young bassoonist Graham Hobbs donned Elvis gear for a droll presentation of Daugherty's mildly amusing Dead Elvis, with its doleful references to "It's Now or Never" (or "O sole mio"), but Daugherty has evidently moved on since 1993; Hell's Angels is a more convincing piece.

David Zinman opened the main concert with a fine performance of Mendelssohn's adorable (and too-little-known) overture The Fair Melusine, then, once Hell's Angels had taken its leave, heaven obliged with Mozart and his Fifth, or "Turkish", Violin Concerto. After the boys in leather, I half expected the violinist Joshua Bell to emerge in full Ottoman regalia; but no, what we saw was as trim, sprightly and unselfconsciously stylish as what we heard. The unfamiliar cadenzas of the outer movements were witty and cleverly written (Bell's own, I wonder?) and the playing gained in inflectional variety as the work progressed. Zinman made a special feature of the finale's Turkish-style orchestral episodes, punching the rhythms with force and precision.

The concert ended with a forthright and colour-conscious performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. Like Paavo Berglund, who had conducted the Fifth in London a week or so earlier, Zinman drove fairly hard and kept to the musical point. He was especially sensitive to the first movement's yearning development section and brought a vivid sense of wit to the scherzo (with the bassoon giving a last wink at the end of the trio). The finale was terrific: fast, precise, powerful, unfussy and truly overwhelming when, towards the close, the "Fate" motive sounded its terrifying return. That the Philharmonia could play so magnificently under the pressures of an almost impossible schedule is cause for both gratitude and admiration. Happily, they received both.