Sunday, 19 January 2020

MUSIC REVIEW: Northern Chamber Orchestra - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.



The NCO had two special guests to perform in their first concert of 2020 – percussionist Colin Currie, who is known for his contribution to contemporary music, and Stephen Barlow, conductor and composer and patron of the NCO. Together with principal clarinettist for the NCO, Elizabeth Jordan, they performed Barlow’s Nocturne for Solo Clarinet, Marimba and Strings. This piece was written in 2010 for clarinettist Emma Johnson so it was a real treat to hear it conducted by the composer himself.

This nocturne is described by Barlow as a “free-flowing fantasia” which is fitting in that it is a journey taken or a story that unfolds to the listener rather than a static emotional snap-shot that the romantic nocturne wants to invoke. The piece took a form of several dialogues between clarinet and marimba, with moments of orchestral underscoring. The opening was immediately and pleasingly reminiscent of Messiaen, not only from the clarinet sonority but also the melodic phrasing and style, yet there was a freshness to it that made it relevant to the 21st century. It is fair to say that the clarinet had a prominent role in this piece which ranged from melancholic to disquiet in mood, but when the marimba answered or said its own piece, it had plenty to say. The string orchestra had a fairly subtle role in Barlow’s Nocturne – it sometimes crept in towards the end of an extended solo section, finishing off the chapter and allowing the musician, and the audience a rest from the intensity of the dialogue. I cannot think of this piece in any other way than two people talking and in that regard it reminded me a bit of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht. Barlow’s abstract nocturne/fantasia was emotional in that 20th century manner of avoiding happy or sad, and touched on very nuanced emotions. He states that this nocturne is a short story, but that he is none the wiser for having tried to tell it. I am not sure that the narrative of this piece is as important or even as obvious as the emotional journey that it creates. If dreams are symbolic manifestations of the dreamer’s subconscious, maybe this nocturne is not so much its story but how that story makes you feel. Jordan played the clarinet part with deep understanding of the melodic direction, which can be difficult for abstract music. She allowed the sonority of the piece to sing and come to life from the start. This was matched with the same perspicuity by Currie on marimba.

Before the nocturne, we heard the NCO play Grieg’s Praeludium from his Holberg Suite Op. 40. This is an immensely beautiful and satisfying piece to hear, full of the sunlight and positivity found in Grieg’s music. The pace carried the audience all the way through this performance, with flawless dynamic expression. It was hard not to have a smile on your face as the NCO charmed us – indeed the musicians themselves were glowing as they performed. The Stoller Hall really allowed each section of the string orchestra to be heard impeccably making it a wonderful experience overall. The romantic composer Grieg, nods to the past in this piece with the drama and structure of the Baroque adding a more sophisticated string technique and whole-orchestral participation. This was fully embraced by the NCO.

The first half of the concert ended with Currie performing Schwertsik’s 'Now You Hear Me, Now You Don’t' Op 102 which was composed in 2009. Currie tells us that this concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra is humorously named to represent the idea that the marimba is sometimes a prominent solo part of this piece, but at other times is blended in to the string parts. I am not sure that this trick works – the marimba is not an instrument that can blend in well with other instruments. No matter how quiet or what technique is employed, it simply stands out and it cannot hide - maybe that was the joke! Certainly in terms of the function the marimba solo element was not always present allowing the marimba to add more harmonic colour at times, rather than melody, but it was always standing out. This is no fault of Currie’s, who played this piece fabulously, nor did it detract from the compositon itself which was made up of five short movements in a fairly traditional outline moving from lively music to slower and then ending with very fast sections. There was humour in the music, nevertheless, and an element of 20th century film score that made this a very engaging and interesting piece of music. The marimba was used in a variety of ways to showcase its sound possibilities and Currie was a master of that sound-world.

The second half saw a change in direction with two pieces from the late Romantic and early 20th century – Delius’ Two Aquarelles and Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, Op. 22. Braford born, Delius’ Two Aquarelles, 1932, was actually an arrangement of an earlier work for voices – Music To Be Sung Of A Summer Night On The Water. Delius, too frail to undertake a commission from Albert Sammons, had his amanuensis Eric Fenby arrange these pieces for strings. A maturity of style is clear in both pieces as indeed an almost autobiographical picture of his life in music. There is a clear romantic writing for the strings with deep intensity and luxury, yet melodies with a distinct 20th century American feel dominate – Copland, Barber could have written these. Even the structural feel was impressionist and French. This was all movingly performed by the NCO who as always find that perfect pace which lifts their performances to the sublime. This was a rich and sumptuous experience. Dvorak’s Serenade was written at the start of his career as a composer and while in a late Romantic style, there were not dissimilarities to Delius’ Aquarelles with soaring melodies, undulating accompaniment and a more complex structure. Dvorak is especially known for his gifted orchestral writing, particularly string writing, and this was evident in the NCO’s performance tonight. Led by artistic director, Nicholas Ward, the orchestra surged and simmered throughout this piece in five short movements. Serenades in music have changed in meaning quite drastically from early serenades which would see an individual sing in the quiet of the night to their beloved, to the Baroque serenade which was outdoor music for celebration, also in the evening. The Classical period maintained the celebratory, evening feel to this music but gave it a sophistication which eventually would be taken to a deeper level in the Romantic period. Dvorak’s Serenade is not a light piece of music but rather serious and grand. The NCO handled this resolutely showing their depth as an orchestra. Indeed tonight’s programme displayed a wide variety of styles and techniques that seemed to be performed masterfully yet effortlessly to the NCO.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 17/1/20

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