Classical Review: The eerie mix of candles and chorales

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Oxford Festival of Contemporary Music Orchestra of St John's/ Schola Cantorum, Smith Square, London

Christchurch Cathedral is not the ideal venue for a concert. On this occasion the orchestra was trapped in the north transept, with the audience distributed around the building, some of them with their backs to the performers. Interestingly enough, this turned out to be the perfect arrangement for the first piece, Stephen Montague's Varshavian Autumn.

Based on the composer's experience in the Seventies, of arriving in Warsaw on Hallowe'en night, this proved to be an incredibly atmospheric, quite eerie, experience; choral and instrumental clusters floated through a darkened cathedral, lit mainly by candles, interspersed with solemn chorales and percussion effects from singers distributed at the building's four corners. The whole thing had the air of a solemn ritual and, performed on a misty Hallowe'en night in Oxford, was a most evocative reminder of the true significance of the festival of All Souls.

The effect of all this was almost to overshadow the world premiere of Dominic Muldowney's Clarinet Concerto, given with exemplary technical skill by Andrew Marriner. Its quirky opening was certainly in complete contrast with what had gone before, with mellifluous material leaning almost towards lusciousness, but as the piece developed, an underlying sense of restlessness and nostalgia became more apparent - something that came to the fore in the yearning, sweeping string phrases and cool clarinet lines of the haunting slow movement, where the concept of being a "stranger in a strange land", led very naturally to the Jewish musical feel of the finale. Here folksy, "klezmer"-inspired oompahs finally swept away the returning nostalgic material and the concerto finished with a flourish. A piece that deserves to be popular, and probably will be.

The rest of the programme was made up of a pleasing performance by the Schola Cantorum under Mark Shepherd of Poulenc's beautiful but tricky Mass in G, with generally good intonation and discipline, especially in the splendid Sanctus, and a most genial rendition by the Orchestra of St John's, conducted by John Lubbock, of Stravinsky's Suite from Pulcinella. An enterprising evening's entertainment from this youngish festival, demonstrating that 20th-century music need not always be so very unpleasant, after all.

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