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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky, Hardin, Bach (arr. MacGregor); Andy Sheppard (saxophone), Shrikanth Sriram (tabla); Britten Sinfonia; Joanna MacGregor (director/piano); QEH, 22nd November, 2003 (AR)

  There are concerts that are merely concerts and there are concerts that are events: this was an event. What made it so was the charismatic and mesmeric direction and playing of Joanna MacGregor. Throughout the evening she inspired extraordinary music-making of the highest calibre, that was both imaginative and inspired.

The concert opened with Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks (1938) - played without a conductor by the versatile fifteen-strong Britten Sinfonia. The playing was refreshingly jazzy in its inflection, with the players sounding closer to a dance band, producing sharp, jagged and angular sounds, the lively, perfectly balanced and integrated rhythms a clear signal of the treats to come.

Louis ‘Moondog’ Hardin (1916-1999) was a wide-ranging musician whose works combined jazz, classical and poetry and he composed over eighty symphonies. Blinded at the age of 16 in an accident, the composer lived in poverty on the streets for thirty years in New York City and eventually settled in Germany.

This concert consisted of a compilation of twelve short pieces arranged by MacGregor, who unified these fragments into a coherent symphonic whole. She said of Moondog’s music that it has all the "strict discipline and purity of Bach’s Fugues." While the musical content was ostensibly conservative, the performances themselves were electrifying and intense. The first number, Single Foot (c. 1990s), originally written for two organs and percussion, sounded like a fox trot (and actually represented for Moondog hoofbeats of a horse with a single foot gait!) Here the Britten Sinfonia and jazz musicians sounded very stylish and played with a syncopated swagger.

Most haunting was Invocation (1988) for Indian flute, throbbing electric guitar and drum taps. Another intriguing piece was Reedroy (1985) which had a Charleston 1920’s swing to it, with Sheppard playing solo on soprano saxophone with an elegant, plangent grace. The closing number, Heath on the Heather (1955) was played with great verve and spontaneity with both orchestra and jazz musicians perfectly integrated, yet the actual music itself remained trite and tedious with a single banal theme continually repeated to the point of becoming merely boring. The performance seemed to illustrate perfectly Andre Previn’s dictum: "The basic difference between classical music and jazz is that in the former the music is always greater than its performance - whereas the way jazz is performed is always more important than what is being played".

Throughout MacGregor did not conduct per se, but directed her fellow musicians at close intimate range, almost face to face as she strutted the stage boogying to the music. Making stabbing movements with her hands, in the manner of Boulez, her vigorous gestures were razor sharp and rhythmically taut.

The concert ended with eight fugues from J.S Bach’s unfinished Art of the Fugue arranged by MacGregor and which also included three interludes where Sheppard and Sriram improvised. MacGregor said of "her favourite composer" that she wanted her arrangement to bring out "…the depth, complexity and variety of the piece" seeing the music not as gloomy but as "bright, energetic and heroic music". Her innovative arrangements, ranging from baroque to bossa nova, certainly celebrated these facets of the music wonderfully well, but being more of a work-in-progress this was, musically speaking, more of a diamond in the rough - such is the nature of experimentation.

MacGregor played the opening piano solo with a stern ghostly starkness and simplicity, with her fellow musicians slowly seeping in and sounding similar to Stravinsky’e Dumbarton Oaks heard earlier. MacGregor stated that she had encouraged the Britten Sinfonia to play with the improvised spontaneity of jazz players, jokingly saying "I think I have created a monster!" - which may explain why they integrated so well with the other jazz musicians. An hypnotic moment in these hybrid arrangements was scored for sombre electric guitar, moody saxophone and muffled drums, strikingly reminiscent of the film sound-track to Paris Texas. Towards the closing passages the entire forces exploded in anarchy before the music broke off suddenly leaving us without an end. There was something uncannily disturbing but deeply moving about this ‘end without an end’ and the audience simply went wild, giving MacGregor and her inspired fellow musicians a well deserved ovation.

Alex Russell



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