John Adams Composer Weekend, Barbican, London
In my second review of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Composer Weekend portrait of John Adams, it seems sensible to explore some of the revelations of this most stimulating and enjoyable event by taking his output in chronological order. Adams didn't find his true path until Phrygian Gates, the minimalist piano piece written when he was just 30. One of my few criticisms of the weekend is that we weren't offered a glimpse of anything earlier; it was surely the ideal place to air a piece such as American Standard.
Phrygian Gates and its contemporary Shaker Loops for string sextet (1978) both came up well in performances by, respectively, Rolf Hind and the Smith Quartet plus friends. It's good to have the unusual expressive power of the works confirmed by such strong players.
Two other outstanding performances suggested the seminal importance of the two 1980s works that have probably caused more outrage than anything else except Klinghoffer. Grand Pianola Music (1982) and Harmonielehre (1985) could be described as the creations of a still-angry, and possibly still-confused, young man. Both combine minimalist repetition with a way-over-the-top approach to aspects of the composer's own heritage.
While the former (given a splendid account by the pianists Rolf Hind and Nicolas Hodges, with the London Sinfonietta under Adams himself) takes a vulgar, pop-art approach to a torrid assortment of musics, the latter's "loving parody", as its composer called it, of late-Romantic idioms is even more challenging in its irony-free, yet more ambiguous, stance on what music should do since Schoenberg seemingly changed it for ever. Leonard Slatkin's powerful account of Harmonielehre (which had Adams shaking with emotion in his seat right in front of me) polarised its audience, drawing a standing ovation from the composer's fans and caustic comments from others. I adored it.
There were other performances of distinction, such as Hind and Hodges' razor-sharp rendition of Hallelujah Junction for two pianos (1998). But perhaps the most searing accounts of all came during the final concert – the BBC Symphony Orchestra's third evening concert in a row – conducted by Adams himself. Leila Josefowicz probed as well as dazzled in the Violin Concerto, greatest of the concert works produced in the wake of Klinghoffer. And Christopher Maltman, a compelling Captain in this opera on Friday, took on The Wound-Dresser, vividly possessing this moving Walt Whitman setting.
And then, finally, there was the British premiere of the new Guide to Strange Places. By this time, I'd just about reached saturation point (the only real drawback of such an intense weekend), and it seems best to reserve proper commentary on this "light-to-dark" journey, which itself appears to expire in psychological exhaustion about 25 minutes after its upbeat beginning. Perhaps, then, I got the point after all; but I suspect that, like the best of Adams's compositions, it will repay many further hearings.
Jon Hendricks, Jazz Cafe, London
Jon Hendrick's is pre-eminent among jazz singers not just because he has a good voice, which he does, but because he is the leading exponent of vocalese. Some singers do no more than state the theme, clicking their fingers at the side while a horn player takes a solo, then restating the melody; given this school's lack of improvisation, the late Benny Green questioned whether its adherents should be considered "jazz" singers at all. Others are known for scatting in a boop-de-doop fashion, their efforts usually greeted with implausible amazement by the audience. Hendricks earns the genre its spurs by lyricising instrumental tunes and making up nonsense words as a vehicle for famous solos – witness his version of Charlie Parker's break in "Night in Tunisia". He is also a proper jazz soloist, as bona fide a jazzman as any instrumentalist.
This was a rare opportunity to catch a veteran of the bebop era in Britain, backed by an excellent trio and with guest appearances by his daughters Aria and Michelle. From the moment he strode on stage in his bright red coat, bowler hat and carpet slippers (from Church's, no less) he had the audience right behind him.
Opening with a breezy "Get Me to the Church on Time", he launched straight away into a demonstration of his incredible vocalese technique. When he stays in the same register, the notes elide, as though they're sloshing around his mouth. In full force, and cross-octave, he produces low notes that rumble around the depths as though their purpose were to dislodge a piece of pie stuck on the stomach-lining, and high ones that could extract a piece of lettuce from the teeth.
At other times his voice trails off, resurging now and then as if there were a coin rattling around his oesophagus. At one point he hushed the other musicians and pretended to play a double-bass solo on an imaginary instrument. Plucking the air with both hands, he picked out grunting, booming E-string notes and captured perfectly the thin "plink" of a note so high up the G-string that the bass's bridge stops it resonating almost as soon as it begins. That wasn't all. On a beautiful, slow Latin number, he placed a drumstick to his mouth as though it were a flute and whistled a solo straight out of the Jobim songbook.
Hendricks is also a proper old-fashioned showman, blowing kisses to the drummer after a particularly musical solo, and telling silly jokes. Bobby McFerrin and Al Jarreau owe a great deal to him, but attendance was shamefully thin at the Jazz Café. British singers were fools not to flock to learn from this 80-year-old master.
Walton Evening, Wigmore Hall London
Though, IN the centenary year of his birth, William Walton's reputation rests on his concertos and marches, there's also a body of chamber music that strongly merits attention. His songs, if overshadowed by Britten's, continue to give their admirers much pleasure. As for his instrumental pieces, thanks to their facture and expressive nuance, they live on in the regard of discerning musicians.
As an upbeat to the actual birthday, which falls on 29 March, those consummate players of the Nash Ensemble devoted last Thursday evening to a pair of concerts at the Wigmore Hall that effectively summed up the composer's achievement in the sphere of small-scale works. In addition, they presented a novelty: excerpts from the film music for Henry V, arranged for theatre band and presented as melodrama with Joss Ackland as narrator, which stressed the indestructible nature of Walton's invention, surely a key to his music's survival into the 21st century.
In fact, with hindsight, a certain enduring and iconic quality of ideas pervades even his earliest chamber work, a piano quartet, completed in 1919 and an astonishing feat for an adolescent choirboy. In an evening of fine performances, the reading of this prescient score was perhaps the most outstanding, an affair of both head and heart, given with passionate understanding by a trio of Marianne Thorsen, Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins, with the pianist Ian Brown.
With something for everyone in its four concise movements – Howells, Ravel and Stravinsky are just three names brought to mind – the music also showed Walton's mature sleights of hand as already functional. In the first movement, his trick of extending a theme in a minor key by repeating it a tone lower (as in the opening bars of the Violin Concerto) was already used with confidence. In the finale, his way of proceeding, having stated his fugal subject, matched almost chord for chord a parallel passage in the First Symphony. And fast-forward the demonic scherzo to parts of the cello Passacaglia, a short, late work, eloquently played by Watkins, or the scherzo moods of the Violin Sonata, with which the Thorsen-Brown duo had opened the celebrations, and the similarity of pattern is remarkable.
The interesting question is why these habits remained a style, without becoming merely mannerism. Clues to an answer lay, perhaps, in "Anon in Love", sung by the tenor Paul Agnew with the charismatic Craig Ogden accompanying on guitar. The pure tone of Agnew's head voice was itself a reminder that the voice of Peter Pears, for whom the cycle was written, was rarely without a strain of self-parody. Walton, especially in later years, likewise parodied himself, but did so knowingly, playing double bluff with his audience. The effect is a certain arch suggestion that the music could be even better than it is, had the composer really bothered, or not known himself so well as to limit his range, say, to the delightful lyrics of "A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table", sung by the soprano Claron McFadden with some lovely melismas in the slower numbers.
The Beta Band, Ocean, London
What do you do when a band do everything in their power to make you despise them? The Beta Band, the evasive quartet made up of three Scotsmen and an Englishman, have denounced their eponymous debut album as "terrible", slated their fans and taken pleasure in torturing journalists with their most effective weapon: silence. Yet somehow they have retained a loyal – fanatical, even – following. Writers, giddy with enthusiasm, still flock to interview them, the poor fools.
This is the second time I have seen them play, and, try as I may, I find it impossible to see what the fuss is about. That the band are seen as musical pioneers is most perplexing. Sure, they are given to stylistic about-turns and delight in writing the kind of nonsense-verse lyrics that would make Björk scratch her head. But Beck and Pink Floyd are just a couple of names that spring to mind after taking in their eclectic, psychedelic-tinged sound.
Live, they do nothing to dispel their image as curmudgeons, either. Despite a few half-hearted attempts by the singer, Steve Mason, to rally the crowd, the stage remains a charisma-free zone. Listening to the Beta Band's records – the best being their latest Hot Shots II LP - you might imagine a bunch of sweet, sensitive art-student types happily pondering life's conundrums. Here, they sound oddly distant, as if they had been accidentally locked in the next-door room and we were listening to them through the wall. In particular, Mason's voice, hushed and compassionate on record, is rendered drab and drained of all emotion. For the most part, the tempo remains dispiritingly low and the band as impassive as bored shop assistants. Only 20 minutes into the set, I was seriously contemplating curling up in a corner and going to sleep.
Visually, however, they pull out all the stops. The stage is festooned with flowers and fairy lights; a disembodied hand reaches heavenward from the speaker-stack. The band appear on stage dressed in white boiler suits and are backed by a series of deeply surreal films – the Beta Band on a magic-carpet ride, being chased by a parrot; the Beta Band climbing a mountain in sleeping-bags. But, alas, it's not enough to hold our attention. Where the Beta Band are concerned, you're better off staying at home and listening to the record.
Fiona SturgesReuse content