thu 01/10/2020

Celebrating Grainger, Kings Place | reviews, news & interviews

Celebrating Grainger, Kings Place

Celebrating Grainger, Kings Place

Australian-born maverick's wind-band experiments defeat military forces

Too many column inches have been devoted to Percy Grainger’s sado-masochistic sexplay and celebration of blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon supremacy, but it’s his music I love. And have done ever since they celestially sounded the wineglasses for Tribute to Foster, his fantasia on "Camptown Races", at the 1982 Aldeburgh Festival (Britten had been an adoring fan). None of our main orchestras has yet taken up a similar gauntlet on the 50th anniversary of the Australian-born one-off’s death. So hurrah, in principle, for the smaller-scale enterprise of Kings Place’s four-day festival devised by pianist and Grainger specialist Penelope Thwaites.

Yesterday evening could not have been its finest couple of hours. Its curtain-raiser, at least, was as good as any: a selection of the piano rolls Grainger "recorded" and assembled of his own and his musical friends’ miniatures, expertly pedalled and articulated on that marvellous reproducing instrument the pianola by Michael Broadway. No, he didn't give us Country Gardens in any of its multiple guises; that millstone round Grainger's neck, as heavy as the C sharp minor Prelude was to Rachmaninov or Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 to Elgar, would surface later in the evening in a quirkier form. But the nearly-as-popular specimen furnished in two shapes by Broadway, Shepherd's Hey, showed us why this is hardly the cowpat-fertilised school of Anglophone music. The tendrils Grainger stretches out around the jolly tune are more Miracle-Gro (and there are a few triffids and venus flytraps in his vast armoury, too).

The thousand-finger licence Grainger brought to his more elaborate mechanical-piano version, anticipating Antheil and Stravinsky, had the hothoused audience rolling in the aisles (no mean achievement for the sea of bird's-nest beards and low testosterone levels which keep these kind of events going). The personality of the player came through for his rollicking performance (as if live, of course, for all the caprices of the pianola) of the "Cakewalk Smasher" In Dahomey, perhaps the best specimen of Grainger in adolescent, jubilant mood. And it was good to hear a few oddities by the contemporaries who wrote for him, Cyril Scott and Joseph Holbrooke, safe-sounding in name alone (the Quilter dances really were cowpat territory, but you can't have everything).

Watch a pianola performance (not as artistic as Michael Broadway's) of Grainger's more complicated Shepherd's Hey arrangement

What I'd really come to hear, though, was one of Grainger's strangest rituals, The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart, in the evening's second event. Serving briefly as a bandsman in the American army during World War One, Grainger wrote it because his own heart ached for the young men laying down their lives for the decaying old powers. Captain Mike Smith, expressing his bewilderment just before he conducted military forces including the Royal Artillery Band, clearly didn't get quite why this weird, long piece should be inspired by soldiers at bayonet practice. The best that can be said for the brass and wind, sounding good collectively at least in Kings Place's Hall One with the percussion ranged around the gallery above, is that they got through the murk and the brief flashes of glory (though a synthesised organ didn't exactly launch the atmosphere of old-guard oppression in style).

51kEJ8dAlzL._SL500_AA300_But I know it can work better than this, and I wonder why Thwaites hadn't turned to one of the excellent wind bands from the music colleges. I got to know The Power and other wonders through the superlative Chandos recording by the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra conducted by Timothy Reynish (currently to be found on a bargain-price 19-CD anniversary box, pictured right). Fluent youth would have brought more exuberance to the lighter pieces; only the sorry saxophones added an extra, if unintentional, degree of humorous wailing to the naughty Country Gardens arrangement, and even the Marches had no real brio.

The real casualty, though, was the intended mystery of the Hill Song No 2, token of Grainger's love for Delius: no hint of phrasing or overall shape here from the first of the evening's three conductors, Major Neil Morgan. And was this "Friday Night is Music Night" when we were all cajoled into shouting "good evening" back and sympathising over the players' busy day? You'd have thought it would be a relief to have the spoken baton, as it were, handed over to Keith Michell, but that was a bit of a shock too: I suppose I still expected a robust Henry VIII when what we got was a good impersonation of a forgetful old major. He should have been given a seat onstage and not been left to wander on and off between numbers.

So it was not the most professional of occasions. Can I be forgiven for hoofing it home at the interval and listening to the exquisite Lincolnshire Posy and other miniatures on my Chandos and Mercury CDs? After all, this piece is really about celebrating Grainger in the round just before the anniversary day, and I thought I could do it, and reflect on his diverse genius, better that way. Not that I wouldn't come back tonight for a different crew, did I not have a Mahler Das Lied von der Erde to go to. And I live in hope that more shapely Grainger events featuring the exquisite choral settings will follow both in the Australasian-themed City of London Festival - details to be announced next month on the COLF website - and at the (still under wraps) Proms. I can't think of a better way to involve whole communities than the freer-range pieces of John Cage's early-20th-century predecessor.

Catch a glimpse of Grainger's elastic pianism as he plays his arrangement of the Irish 'march-jig' Maguire's Kick

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Thanks for not staying for the second half. Nice by name but not by nature.

Hmm, I have to say a review of half a concert is only half a review. I wish I'd stopped reading halfway through and given you the same consideration, respect and courtesy you showed the performers.

I would like to point out that this concert, undertaken by two of our wonderful military bands, was in aid of Help For Heroes. The Royal Artillery Band were on the road at 6am on the day of the engagement supporting a unit of Our Majesties finest returning to the UK. I think it fair on this occasion for the Director of Music to bring this to the attention of the public, thus raising awareness to a wonderful charity. Your comments are like your status at the engagement last night, which is to say 'half baked'. Do us all a favour and stay at home next time, and enjoy your recordings in the company I imagine you enjoy most.

You can find fault with certain things, but the point of it all was to celebrate Grainger and to show a side of him that would be unfamiliar to many people. I think it did this splendidly.

With a specialist programme in front of the Military Bands, I think their performance was marvellously attempted and cannot be faulted for effort and enthusiasm. As was said before, the concert was a commemoration for Percy Grainger, not an audition, and also to create public awareness and appreciation of the composers fine works. Percy Grainger's military connection meant that the performers were perfectly appropriate, even though some interpretations were lacking, I think, if had been undertaken by a conservatoire Orchestra/Wind band then enthusiasm would have been entirely out of context, and more importantly the charity would have been void. The Friday night concert was without a doubt a success, with or without specifics and more importantly a fantastic introduction to not only the following concert - led by the Fitz Williams players and a select number of Royal Artillery Orchestra members - but Percy Grainger himself.

Couldn't agree more with all the comments posted above. I myself am not a Grainger fan but I felt that the audience were enjoying themselves which surely is the point of it all isn't it?

No, Person, I don't believe it is. The point is surely that everyone comes out thinking Grainger's great, which clearly didn't work for you. And while I was glad that in principle these works were being done, in practice what I heard didn't begin to do them justice in terms of line, articulation or phrasing. The angry musicians below seem not to have taken into account that I was writing a piece about Grainger on the 50th anniversary of his death, and that their role in it was there to show up the composer in his best possible light. Which I just don’t feel they did, regardless of the charitable collection which slipped by me in the programme and the pleasure they may have had/received. In response to initial comments ruder, I think, than mine, which were not entirely negative (the ensemble sound was good), I should make it clear that I’ve never left any previous performance I was writing about halfway through because, however violently I may have disagreed with the approach, the professional grounding was never in doubt. And I didn’t feel that was firm enough in this case.

The experience of seeing young soldier musicians playing music that came out of Grainger’s own time in the army became a moving and meaningful experience for many who were there. Sadly, Mr Nice missed the point. As for judging a festival of nine major events on the strength of visiting just one and a half of them...

I'm sorry to be combative once again, Penelope (if I may), I thought the point was the delivery. I don't contest the special nature of the occasion, to which I was looking forward eagerly, only find it did not present the music as it deserved. You of all people must surely realise that (I read of an American band performance of Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy being cancelled because it was too difficult for the players, as was the case here). Though I did express regret that,given the huge number of musical events on in London at the moment, I couldn't hear more of your festival, and made a special effort to squeeze this in. Big deal, I hear you say, but do at least grant that I'm getting to know and love my Grainger, fair representation of which is all that concerns me.

Leaving aside all comment about the concert, I'm a bit disappointed that Mr Nice (isn't this name copyright Roger Hargreaves ?) feels obliged to start his article with the obligatory mention of some of Percy's personal peculiarities, just to say that he's not going to mention them, and to continue by gratuitously insulting the audience. What did we do to you, sir, that you need to call into question our testosterone levels ? Do you mean that quite a few of us were the wrong side of 50 ? How old are you ? And why does it matter ? The only thing I would like to agree about is the way some of the conductors felt obliged to talk to the audience. I fancy all military band conductors do this these days, in order to convince us that they're nice chaps really, and they won't shoot us. But it's a bit puerile, like a good deal of this article.

What an amazing concert. If you look at the score Mr Nice (do you read music???) i think you will find that the Saxes are supposed to be like that in Country Gardens. I think that the military band was wonderful and that the playing of and entertainment value was great.

I did say 'an extra', lovely boy. And why do some of you monikered people get off on being so rude? Do I say you must be very unmusical to find musicality in that playing? Well, you've provoked me to say it now. As a fellow in Apollo put it - and he was much politer when it came to the printed word - it was very hard at times to tell what instruments were being played; some bore no resemblance to the real thing as we know it.

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