thu 25/07/2024

Akugbo, Harper, The Jago, Dalston review - revelatory pairing of trumpet and harp | reviews, news & interviews

Akugbo, Harper, The Jago, Dalston review - revelatory pairing of trumpet and harp

Akugbo, Harper, The Jago, Dalston review - revelatory pairing of trumpet and harp

Harpist demonstates his instrument has attitude and soul to match trumpeter's liquid gold

Distinctive chemistry: rising star Aaron Akugbo performed at Through the Noise

For its 22nd concert the hugely successful initiative, Through The Noise, took its audience to The Jago in Dalston, the live music venue formerly known as Passing Clouds. Here, on a stage more familiar with reggae, blues and Afrobeat, 25-year-old classical trumpeter Aaron Akugbo joined forces with harpist Milo Harper (pictured below) for a series of sultry, haunting numbers that explored the possibilities of this unusual pairing.

Both players are rising stars of the classical music scene – Akugbo will make his Proms solo debut later this year with the Haydn Trumpet Concerto while the multi award-winning Harper is devoting himself to challenging the traditional harp repertoire. They opened their set with Villa-Lobos’s Song of the Black Swan, originally composed as a response to Saint Saëns’ The Swan for cello and piano.

It was a gorgeous subtle opening that demonstrated the unique chemistry of this performing duo. Akugbo’s performance was notable for its poetic restraint while already in this opening number Harper was demonstrating that the harp had both the attitude and soul to match the liquid gold of the trumpet.

The second number, Rustiques by Eugène Bozza, was one of the few standards of the trumpet repertoire in the evening – it has been recorded by Wynton Marsalis among others. Harper, who had personally rearranged the vast majority of the pieces for the evening, had rewritten the piano part for harp. After the fanfare style beginning, the two performers thrillingly demonstrated the piece’s virtuoso range, throwing the melodies backwards and forwards to each other as the music tilted between dazzling cadenzas and more richly lyrical passages.

The next part of the concert explored the link between poetry and music, beginning with a piece by Florence Price, the first black woman whose work was performed by a major orchestra. Night, composed in 1946 as a song, was a setting of a poem by Louise C Wallace. Before they played, Harper – joking that Akugbo disapproved of what he was doing – read out the words. “Night comes/a Madonna clad in scented blue./Rose red her mouth and deep her eyes/She lights her stars and turns to where/Beneath her silver lamp the moon/Upon a couch of shadow lies/A dreamy child/The weary day.” Harper at The JagoIt was a beguiling introduction which heightened the unique tone of this thoughtful, intelligent section of the concert. As in the Villa-Lobos Akugbo demonstrated the more introspective, elegiac aspects of his instrument. They moved on to Poulenc’s C’est ainsi que tu es and finished with Debussy’s Nuit D’Etoiles, his first published composition. After Harper’s reading - “Night of stars/Beneath your veils/Beneath your breeze and fragrance/Sad lyre/That sighs/I dream of bygone loves” – this felt like the piece in which Akugbo really allowed himself to let go, demonstrating an anguished intensity that thrillingly amplified the yearning lyrics.

Then we were onto a solo for Harper – Liszt’s Le Rossignol (Nightingale) – originally written for piano and arranged by Henriette Renié, who he described as a “Liszt of the harp”. Harper’s distinctive talent really had a chance to shine here as he demonstrated how he could imbue the harp with all the resonance and drama of a nineteenth century piano played by a wild-at-heart genius.

Following the evocative, troubled Nocturne, Cortège by Lili Boulanger, in which trumpet and harp delicately swirled around each other like whisps of smoke in the wind, Akugbo presented an astonishing work by Joy Guidry, They Know What They’ve Done To Us. Guidry, a black non-binary composer, created the piece with Akugbo for his Lucerne Festival debut, as a powerful depiction of the deeply shameful moment in history when enslaved black people drowned after either jumping or being pushed off the ships abducting them.

The electronic soundscape opened with the sounds of waves and chains. Then Akugbo – using the harmon mute – heightened this sound world with a lacerating, wailing lament. Against the depth and swirl of the sea there were points where the sounds summoned up by the trumpet sounded almost hallucinogenic. The piece finished with the recorded quote from Civil Rights campaigner Fannie Lou Hamer that inspired the title “They know what they’ve done to us”. It was an earth-shaking performance.

A difficult one to follow too, but in this rich and varied evening they of course managed it. The final piece was another original composition for trumpet – composed in 1906 by the Romanian French-trained composer George Enescu, an impressionistic work designed to evolve the trumpet’s range as a solo instrument. Both performers clearly revelled in the technical challenges – not least in the execution of the piano part for harp. It was an ebullient close to a concert that was as nuanced as it was provocative – with the intimate setting of the Jago heightening the chemistry in this latest triumph for Through The Noise.


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