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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Bath International Music Festival (3)
  Stravinsky, Bach, Gismonti and Sheppard: Joanna MacGregor (pno/director) Andy Sheppard (saxophones) Britten Sinfonia, The Pavilion, Bath, 31.05.2006 (BK)


Stravinsky: Dumbarton Oaks
Bach (arranged MacGregor):The Art of Fugue - Conrapunctus 1,2,3 and 9
Stravinsky: Rag-Time

Egberto Gismonti : Forrobodo and Frevo
Andy Sheppard / Joanna MacGregor: Duos from Deep River
Bach: Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV 1056
Stravinsky: Concert in D for Strings
Andy Sheppard: View from the Pyramids Part 3

All the way through the first half of this concert, the man in front of me was having the back of his head stroked very gently by a woman sitting next to him. He left her during the interval and didn't return. I've no idea why, but I can't  believe that the music was the problem.


In her first season as Bath Festival's Artistic Director, Joanna MacGregor has stamped it firmly with her taste for cross-cultural collaboration. Combining orthodox performances of short Stravinsky and Bach concerti with jazz based works and re-worked versions of other Bach pieces was an inspired idea that made for a fruitful mix, greatly appreciated by the packed Pavilion audience.
The works played that were played 'straight', Dumbarton Oaks  - itself modelled on Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto - and the other instrumental concerti provided a secure artistic platform for the experimentation evident elsewhere in the programme. With polished and professional readings from the twenty-one instrument Britten Sinfonia from Cambridge, and with Ms MacGregor at the piano in the Bach F minor Keyboard Concerto, as introductions to the less familiar pieces these performances could hardly have been bettered. If there was a drawback at all, the blame lay squarely with the Pavilion's dull acoustic; this low ceilinged building with thick curtaining round its walls is less than ideal for orchestral concerts. It damps a a lot of treble from the soundstage - at least from where I and maybe the man in front of me were sitting - which made the Sinfonia's performances feel much less exciting than they obviously should have been.


Perhaps the most controversial pieces in the concert were the extracts from the Art of Fugue, played in Ms MacGregor's own arrangements for orchestra, piano and saxophones. Taken from the recent Moondog / Art of Fugue tour in which the American street musician's works were played alongside this radical re-working of Bach's uncompleted, late and mysterious masterpiece, the overall effect was distinctly startling. After beginning with Contrapunctus I as a piano solo, the following movements were played in styles that emulated Stravinsky once again, something that sounded rather like Jacques Loussier and a fast and furious version of Contrapunctus IX played by the whole ensemble complete with saxophones. It was certainly radical but suprisingly effective and left me wanting to hear more.


The duos from Deep River, the latest CD collaboration between Ms. MacGregor and Andy Sheppard were very touching, especially Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child in which Sheppard's breathy and high fluting sounds on the tenor sax were perfectly reflected by the piano's rippling treble and increasingly boogie-like left hand. Georgia Lee by Tom Waits, a gentle slow waltz with repeating piano ostinato produced some wonderful soprano saxophone sounds in a quiet reverie that built up great intensity from the theme's many repetitions.


Completed by Stravinsky's extraordinary Rag-Time, two pieces by the Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti - part samba , part African rhythms - and by the finale of Andy Sheppard's own concerto View from the Pyramids (written for Joanna MacGregor and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta in 1994 and reminiscent here and there of John Adam's  Short Ride in a Fast Machine) this was a truly innovative concert which revealed both the huge range of Joanna MacGregor's musical interests and her unparalleled capacity for drawing compelling listening from all of them. The audience naturally wanted more at the end and were rewarded with a blistering performance of something by Piazzolla - one of the many versions of Adios Noninos I think, but since it was unnanounced I can't be sure.

The concert was recorded for broadcasting by BBC Radio 3 at some future date. It will be interesting to compare the recorded sound with the flatness of the Pavilion's live acoustic.

Bill Kenny






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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)