mon 03/10/2022

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble / Martineau & Osborne / SCO, Marshall, Edinburgh International Festival 2022 review - great musicians, not always great music | reviews, news & interviews

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble / Martineau & Osborne / SCO, Marshall, Edinburgh International Festival 2022 review - great musicians, not always great music

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble / Martineau & Osborne / SCO, Marshall, Edinburgh International Festival 2022 review - great musicians, not always great music

Quality playing, but the content didn't always match the execution

Composer and didgeridoo player William Barton with the Chineke! Chamber EnsembleAll images by Ryan Buchanan

What happens when great musicians play weak music? I couldn’t help but think about that while I listened to the musicians of Chineke! Chamber Ensemble (★★) on Friday morning in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall. Chineke! was founded to provide opportunities for black and ethnically diverse classical musicians, so it’s a logical step for them also to promote music written by non-white composers, too.

I wish they’d picked better music than what they played in this Edinburgh International Festival programme, though.

Every piece in the concert's first half felt humdrum and spun out, the composers either failing to come up with exciting material, or not being sure what to do with what they’d found. The music of black American composer William Grant Still’s Folk Suite No1 at least had some appealing folk melodies in it but, aside from the poignantly affecting harmonies of Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, the composer was reduced to clunky accompaniments chugging underneath his tunes. Valerie Coleman, a contemporary American composer, wrote Red Clay and Mississippi Delta for five wind players, but gives them little to do beyond wheeze alongside some blues riffs, creating a piece that’s fun but slight. Chineke! playersThe music of two First Nation Australians didn’t fare much better. Deborah Cheetham’s Ngarrgooroon – Woven Song featured some interesting, wandering lines of melody, the harmonies for which Cheetham writes beautifully. It’s spun out long beyond its natural running time, though, and five minutes could happily be cut. It’s a model of restraint compared to the music by William Barton, though. A vocalist, composer and didgeridoo artist, Barton begins The Rising of Mother Country  with the eerie sound of his voice floating in from the back of the hall against an unsettled instrumental texture. A viola eventually stirs up warmer strands of sound, against with Barton’s didgeridoo and voice provide texture, and the music slides into different harmonies and keys as it progresses. It’s far too long, though, spinning out small fragments of material in a way that becomes repetitious and dull. He then played a tedious encore which featured his own made-up language to sing short lines of melody against repeated chord patterns.

I’m 100% in favour of getting unfamiliar music out there, whatever their ethnicity, and yes: let’s promote the music of composers whose racial background provides them with fewer opportunities. But let’s try and find better music with which to do it. There’s bound to be more out there that’s written with stronger technique, more engaging musical lines and more economically used materials. The musicians themselves seemed to be playing it with seriousness and commitment, but didn’t they wonder whether there was a sense of the Emperor’s new clothes to the whole thing? Chineke! PlayerrsMendelssohn’s Piano Sextet, which featured in the second half of the programme, showed what they could do with some music that was well written and seriously constructed. With its warm harmonies and purposeful musical stride, it felt like a breath of fresh air in comparison. It also felt like an afterthought.

Of course, not all music written by white male westerners is great, something you could notice forcefully on Saturday morning with all thirty-three of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes. These trifles are musical indulgences, a world away from the technical triumphs of Brahms’ symphonies, concertos and chamber music. They sound completely lovely, though. Not only do they play on the emotions in all the right ways, but they’re condensed miracles of sound that often deliver their emotional impact in less than a minute.

Hearing all of both sets was rather a lot to digest in one concert, a little like being force-fed teacakes; but that was the only thing to complain about in a lovely performance by Edinburgh pianists Malcolm Martineau and Steven Osborne, playing duets (I think I’m right in saying) for the first time (★★★★). This isn’t music in which to show off, and each seemed to dissolve inside the musical line of the other in a most becoming way. They had a terrific quartet of soloists, too, with Madison Nonoa’s silvery soprano and Jess Dandy’s gorgeously rich contralto as the ladies. Magnus Walker sang the tenor part with ringing energy, and William Thomas had a beautifully vigorous bass voice, full of juice. They were all wonderfully contrasted, which made them sound superb when they all came together. MArtineau and OsborneMartineau and Osborne (pictured above) also played a gorgeously delicate performance of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and a searching, deep rendition of Schubert’s F minor Fantasie, a physically demonstrative performance where they both nodded and shook their heads vigorously to match the musical mood.

Thoughts about “great” music came back to me in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s evening concert of 20th century music (★★★★), mostly because it finished with Robert Russell Bennett’s Symphonic Picture on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. I’ve no doubts about Gershwin’s terrific melodies, of course: my question mark came with Bennett’s orchestral medley, which strings the tunes together slightly at random and, more seriously, neuters Gershwin’s ramshackle orchestration by smoothing things over and cutting the orchestral piano. Wayne Marshall and the SCONo complaints elsewhere in the concert, though, with a terrific performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Wayne Marshall conducted from the keyboard, which he pummelled to within an inch of its life during the extended solos, and I mean extended! I don’t think I’ve ever heard this piece with longer piano solos! However, it seemed to work because Marshall made the whole piece sound like an improvisation, and not just the bits that actually were. That mood spread into the orchestra, too, not least with a terrifically sleazy opening clarinet solo, chock-full of portamenti, but full of fun. In short, every clarinettist’s dream.

Bernstein’s Fancy Free and Copland’s El Salón México also benefited from supersized orchestral sound that you rarely expect from a chamber orchestra, but with lots of saucy details, too, such as the smoochy strings and bouncy rhythms in the Copland.

Marshall finished with a chaotically brilliant improvisation on I Got Rhythm, played on the mighty Usher Hall organ. Sure, it upstaged the orchestra, it was more than a little self-indulgent, and it definitely wasn’t “great” music; but I cheered at the end, nonetheless.

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