London Sinfonietta/Jonny Greenwood, Royal Festival Hall, 27 March 2005

Beg pardon for the delay – BPM business took me to the RMA’s postgrad conference in the North East for half of this week. Still, here are a couple of already-published reviews from the press:

Geoff Brown reviews in The Times [Dead link now, sorry. Blame Murdoch if you like.]

Martin Fielding reviews in The Independent

My initial reaction was dull first half, more than redeemed by the second, and in the end, looking back the only real weak point was Greenwood’s new composition Piano for Children. At 12 minutes this was the longest piece in a concert of mostly vignettes, and it did feel like a few minutes too long. Once it became clear that the faltering, prepared-out-of-tune piano part was programmatic of a child learning its part, the piece lost its way somewhat. But it was intriguing in its opening section at least to hear unmistakably Radiohead harmonies working their way into Greenwood’s concert persona.

By the end of the concert, it was clear that it was Greenwood’s all-round musical character that had somehow held the diverse elements together. Following Tuta, by the Syrian composer Farid al-Atrash, with Penderecki’s Capriccio for oboe and strings worked uncannily well, and similar links were picked up between different pieces throughout the concert. Musical echoes between Dutilleux (sections of whose string quartet Ainsi la nuint were sprinkled throughout) and Messiaen shouldn’t be a surprise, but to hear the angelic whoops of an Ondes martenot at moments in the string quartet was a surprising oral connection. Ligeti’s Ramifications was clearly included because of the impulse it gave Greenwood to explore microtones and detuning (Piano for Children, and his second, much better, piece, smear), and rhythmic complexity through process (the new arrangement of ‘Arpeggi’). The Ondes itself is more than happy with microtonal details, so fitted right in, and Greenwood himself clearly adores the instrument, so Messiaen’s La fête des belles eaux was presumably first on the teamsheet. Somehow, despite adoring Messiaen since school, I’d never heard this piece. On paper it’s one of those long, langorous chorales that the composer delighted in (L’ascension, Et exspecto, Quatour pour la fin du temps etc), but the wobbly, warbling, tinkling moan of six Ondes playing together is – as you’d expect – something else. In his arrangement of ‘Arpeggi’, Greenwood went one better than Messiaen himself and introduced a seventh Ondes into the texture, something I don’t expect ever to see live again.

For the final piece, another Radiohead arrangement – this time of ‘Where Bluebirds Fly’ (no ‘Best of’ favourites here) – the Nazareth Orchestra and singer Lubna Salame were ushered onstage for a Jools Holland-style fusion extravaganza. Actually, it was nothing like as bad as that, much better in fact. In this last song, looking backwards through the concert through Greenwood, Dutilleux, Penderecki, al-Atrash, Abdel-Wahab, Messiaen and finally Ligeti it sounded at last like the unified personal soundworld that it hadn’t at first threatened to be. Whether willed into being by stage charisma, celebrity, or an astute musical mind, Greenwood’s concert at its end formed a mass of rarities and one-offs that was both revealing and satisfying. The term ‘curator’ may well look like the kiss of death for most concerts, but on this occasion, for the musical connections that one man hears revolving around him, it made perfect sense.

Finally, a word on visuals. I’ve long maintained that live music is in great part a visual experience, and welcome the introduction of projection screens into the concert hall. But, two things, please. Firstly, the projector on Sunday evening was such a heavy breathing monster that it frequently overwhelmed the sounds coming from stage; and secondly, is it me, or are these visuals rapidly evolving backwards? Sunday’s were such a crass, childish display of primary-coloured sine waves and frequency spectra (projected centrally, whilst most of the ensembles were offset left or right, so you could only watch one or the other) that they were as embarrassing as they were distracting. Put some effort in, please.

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