Author Archives: Dan Whitfield

A month today at the Snape Proms… The John Wilson Orchestra

If you haven’t got tickets, put it in your diary in red ink (literal or metaphorical) and snap up a return or one of the Proms tickets available on the day. If you HAVE heard them before either at the BBC Proms or at Snape or on tour, you’ll know what I mean and understand my excitement.

The thing that strikes you is the sheer exuberance on stage – it’s not imperative for musicians to LOOK like they’re having a good time, but sometimes, in the right context, it sure as hell helps! They sway together, breath together, the amount of eye contact and “non-verbal communication” (who came up with that phrase?) within the orchestra is phenomenal – and phenomenally effective. They play with the energy, tautness of ensemble and lavish, sumptuous depth of sound that befits one reviewer’s gushing epithet “Technicolour for the ears”

They are very much formed in their conductor’s own image; enthusiasts, the best in their field (they’re actually an occasional orchestra made up of an incredible roster of this country’s leading orchestral musicians – front deskers and principals all). Compered by the droll Wilson himself, every concert is an event, and quite a few I’ve been at fell into the category of “I was there” moments…

Blessed with the charisma and poise of two star soloists in Matt Ford and Anna Jane Casey, this promises real riches, and a suitable end to a month of festivities.

That’s Entertainment indeed…

The John Wilson Orchestra at the Snape Proms on August 31.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… The Scottish Ensemble: Commonwealth Strings

Scottish EnsembleThis is a great idea from north of the border – one of Britain’s finest ensembles teaming up with brilliant young professionals from around the Commonwealth, surfing the tide of goodwill and energy that already seems to have been generated by the Glasgow Games to form a classical supergroup. (Actually, on a smaller scale it’s a bit like our own Aldeburgh World Orchestra, that unforgettable gigantic band formed for the London Olympiad two years ago).

But it’s the prospect of a fine performance of THIS that has me really salivating at this concert:

Vaughan-Williams’ Tallis Fantasia (which opens the programme) may be much beloved of castaways and Classic FM listeners (and absolutely NOTHING wrong with that – it’s a wonderful piece of music). But this brilliant Elgar showpiece captures the spirit of youth, compositional dexterity to rival any of the great European composers of the early twentieth century – and some damn great tunes to boot. And what a performance this is. I know it’s a bit like cheerleading for the home team, but Britten the conductor (some say he was unmoved by and indifferent to Elgar’s music – you’d never suspect it) somehow coaxes such lovingly caressing phrasing, elasticity and rumbustious high spirits from the English Chamber Orchestra. Ah…this is close to making it to MY desert island…and in the hands and bowing arms of the unconducted, superversatile Scottish Ensemble and their young cohorts it should be really special…

And if all that weren’t enough, there’s Elgar’s exquisite modest Serenade as well, and the atmospheric music of Peter Sculthorpe, and Tippett’s inexplicably overlooked Concerto for two string orchestras, buoyant, radiant music of verve and vitality.

Now really, it’s a brilliant idea…

The Scottish Ensemble play at the Snape Proms on August 30.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… Trio Mediaeval

Classical and folk music lovers alike will love the beautiful and haunting music of Trio Mediaeval. Their focus: monophonic and polyphonic mediaeval music from England, France and Italy, as well as the traditional tunes of their Scandinavian roots. They’re known for breath-taking performances that simply captivate the audience, surrounding them in a lush, full sound and guiding them on journeys of the soul through the medium of music.

They’re not afraid to experiment – they’ve worked with jazz improv musicians and Sufi poetry. They’re no strangers to concert halls or festival experiences, with performances from all over the world. With five albums to their name, they’re just going from strength to strength.

It’s the classic blend of the old and the new, but done in such a way that it’s difficult to tell the difference. Everything sound sacred with their unique and astounding talent. If you want to be entranced, to experience pure, harmonic excellence then this is the Prom you’ve been waiting for.

Trio Mediaeval play at the Snape Proms on August 26.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

I love the sound of the kora. The African harp was one of the first sounds heard at the opening weekend party of the Britten Studio (was it really five years ago?) and its soulful, stirring strains remain with me even now – it was an implacably tranquil, very `other’ way to open a new building, an exotic, other-worldly music that sang of wide open spaces and timeless tradition.

The Celtic tradition is no less evocative of course and former Royal Harpist to the Prince of Wales Catrin Finch teams up with Seckou Keita in a magical collaboration that somehow captures the essence of both worlds. The album’s a delight, these string sparring partners trading riffs, blending beautifully and absorbing each other’s musical heritage simply, seamlessly, the steely, slightly metallic sound of the kora offsetting the gentler, rounder sounds of the concert harp. Lest you think it’s all ethereal floatiness, there’s grit and harder edges here too, and I’m amazed at how both players – seemingly intuitively bound to each other – find such vitality and buoyant springing dance rhythms from their instruments.

It’s a gorgeous summer evening as I write this and I’m going to get my daily fix of this luminous, intricate, constantly shifting music in the car on the way home… I can’t imagine anything better attuned to the weather, or my mood…

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita play at the Snape Proms on August 25.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… comedy from Igudesman & Joo

THIS is what got me into Igudesman and Joo. It was doing the rounds five or six years ago (it’s from 2006) and (naively) I thought I was part of a select insider few who’d latched on to them. But look at the number of hits – over FIVE MILLION on this clip alone! Clearly I was not – am not – alone in my appreciation.

Superstars in Europe and the States, staggeringly this is actually only their second ever UK appearance. I don’t know what that says about us – comedy has been riding a pretty high wave in this country for years, and look at the adulation for the pitch-perfect musical comedy of Tim Minchin) But I hope this could be the start of something big for them here – they certainly deserve it.

A Little Nighmare Music is as they themselves put it “is a show to crack you up whether you’re a classical music enthusiast or the type who runs for cover at the mere mention of Mozart”. The clip sort of tells you everything you need to know – though there are dozens more via their website and on Youtube. A classic comedy double-act, deadpan ringmaster and hapless stooge, subtle and impressive musicianship, inspired clowning, comic (and musical) timing to die for, a hint of edge-of-seat jeopardy, satire and some good old-fashioned slapstick, As with all great comedy there is a serious side – they genuinely do want to bring classical music to a wider audience. But they do it with such sophistication, ingenuity and charm – and their musical ‘chops’  mean they’re held in affection and esteem by audiences and fellow musicians alike (their ‘guest list’ roster includes such luminaries as Joshua Bell, Emmanuel Ax and VIktoria Mullova (all – think Andre Previn on the Morecombe and Wise show) happily content to send themselves up and gently, fondly, mock their profession.

A brilliantly conceived, theatrical satire and a rip-roaringly funny night out, Hugely recommended.

Igudesman & Joo perform at the Snape Proms on August 23.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… Claire Martin and the BBC Big Band

Wow. Who better than Claire Martin to take us on a whistle-stop tour of the great divas of the jazz age – Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee et al.

Whether with her legendary duo with the late and oft-lamented composer Richard Rodney-Bennett, or working on her own albums with some of the other great jazz musicians of our age, or fronting shows with big bands, her trio, symphony orchestras, she seems to be as at home with arrangements of the great jazz standards, brand new material, or even the songs of Lennon and McCartney

But you underestimate this versatility and adaptability at your peril; musical chameleon she may be, yet she’s always herself, gently imprinting her own big personality on everything she touches but (just as importantly) never getting in the way of some great music. She brings a restless adventuring spirit, her impeccable finely-honed musicianship and soaring imagination to it all – a talent to treasure and a real star.

Big bands have always been a staple of the Snape Proms – jazz enthusiasts often reminisce about the BBC recordings here in the 70s (Jazz at the Maltings? I must find out more about that). And so they will always be. But it’s important to get the best – and in the renowned BBC Big Band and their esteemed guest I really believe we’ve got some of the best in the business here. Returns only, but remember those last-minute Proms tickets released on the day of the concert.

The BBC Big Band perform with Claire Martin at the Snape Proms on August 23.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani rehearsing for his Festival concert in Aldeburgh Church

Mahan Esfahani rehearsing for his Festival concert in Aldeburgh Church

Only two things that make this irresistible for me; the performer – and the music!

Firstly, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. As anyone who witnessed his Aldeburgh Festival debut last month will testify, Mahan is a musician of immense technical assurance, boundless imagination and formidable surety of touch. He is also a great thinker, communicator and passionate ambassador for what he still sees (and he may be right) as an unfashionable instrument, a musical Cinderella if you like. He does it with skill, charm, energy and a tub-thumping zeal – in short he plays like he is – relentlessly engaging, unshakeably persuasive. He makes us listen with fresh ears to music we don’t yet know, and to music we thought we did.

And what music! It may be argued Bach’s epic journey through all the keys on the keyboard (a Prelude and Fugue for every one, major and minor) was never meant to be performed in one broad span, or listened to in a single sitting. But here it is, the intricacies, invention, imagination and verve laid out end to end in a glorious compendium of compositional genius, 48 pieces, each one a polished gem, but put together forming a shining case of jewels almost unparalleled in the history of keyboard music.

Music to put a spring in your step, played by this most passionate and engaging of interpreters. Not his first performance in the Maltings – or even his first Bach here (he stepped in at very short notice with some aplomb to perform the Goldberg Variations in August 2012). But a real event, nonetheless and one that promises a rich and fascinating listening experience.

Mahan Esfahani plays at the Snape Proms on August 22.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… Steve Earle

Steve EarleHow amazing to hold an audience in thrall for two hours using just the power of your voice, a guitar, your creative imagination and a set-list of – for the most part – your own material. How must THAT feel? Liberating, connected, terrifying, I imagine. The spotlight is on you, and you alone; there is, literally, nowhere to hide. I am in complete awe of all musicians, but perhaps none more so than the solo singer-songwriter.

I marvelled at this when Richard Thompson played Snape Maltings recently. And perhaps this is quite a relevant comparison – Steve Earle shares with that towering figure on the British music scene a troubador’s sense of poetry, a lyricism, an outspoken voice, sometimes politically charged, a social consicence in musical form. He is one of the great communicators, and undoubtedly one of the great songwriters of our times, His output jaw-droppingly prolific, with his songs recorded by a who’s who of the country music world – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez – it is a songwriter’s CV like no other. And he shows no sign of slowing.

He has (like Eddi Reader, that other master story-teller at this year’s Proms) an acting career too. And he’s a novelist. And broadcaster. So a mammoth solo set, suffused with his wry asides, musical history and effortless natural charm? All in a day’s work…

Steve Earle plays at the Snape Proms on August 21.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… London Winds

London WindsI go to a lot of concerts, not just the ones I’m involved in presenting I hope I look for the best in all of them – they’re interesting, sociable, intriguing, stimulating, often electrifying experiences – or should be. But sometimes you feel jaded, dutiful, weighed down by life outside the concert hall perhaps. Such was my mood when the City of London Sinfonia came to town this Spring.

But the performance of Mozart’s clarinet concerto by Michael Collins (playing – as originally intended – the solo part on bassett horn, the mellower, larger, chocolatey-smooth sounding cousin of the modern clarinet) – THAT blew me away. Style, grace, eloquence and (without noticing it) a clearly jaw-dropping technical adroitness meant a piece I thought I knew well (and Collins has performed well over (I’m guessing) a hundred times) came alive as never before. It was a total joy – and made me even more glad we’d booked London Winds for Snape Proms.

Michael has moulded a starry collective of wind soloists in his own image – the best in the business, but a group that – yes clichéd though it sounds – is, if possible so much more than the sum of its parts. And the music! I know I’m The Converted here (I’ve struggled through these pieces effortfully as an amateur oboist) – but to listen to Mozart’s impeccably-crafted, richly scored wind serenades is to realise yet again that pretty much all he touched turned to gold. They’re rich, harmonious, spirited, subtle pieces written for a supposedly humble wind band (actually an orchestral wind section). And like their big cousin (or rather the granddaddy of them all, the Gran Partita for 13 winds) completely belie their modest intentions and origins as al fresco entertainment. They form superbly-sculpted bookends to a programme that – if that weren’t enough – includes delectable descendants of those earlier masterpieces by Gounod and Strauss. Attune your ears to the pungent, grainy – but never raucous – sound of the classiest of wind ensembles and this is a listening experience on a par with any of the great string quartets, or piano-based ensembles. It is enough to refresh even the most jaded of palettes…

London Winds play at the Snape Proms on August 17.

Snape Proms

A month today at the Snape Proms… Penguin Cafe & Tom Baxter

Penguin Cafe are a joy to watch, a pleasure to work with – and an almost completely undefinable listening experience! But here goes.

Imagine a supergroup, unfettered by notions of what `style’ they are meant to be following (or what trends they are meant to be setting?). A high-spirited, slightly rag-tag collective that can turn their hand to sweetly melodic instrumental folk, stomping Balkan high-jinks, pitch-perfect instrumental pop, atmospheric mood-pieces, soulful songs without words, ballads of no discernible origin, with titles that defy logical explanation. A little free-jazz here, a hint of minimalism there, classical restraint with a liberated freedom drawn from the best of pop and rock a symphony in the original literal sense of the word – “sounding together” This was a big band ahead of its time, the original Penguin Café Orchestra, and Penguin Cafe (no accent – the differences are subtle but important!) is the twenty-first century homage to the original, mixing the original hits with new material cut from the same creative cloth

But for the last – and best – word, it’s sometimes better to hand over to the musicians. Arthur Jeffes, son of the late Simon Jeffes and leader of this beautifully judged tribute to his father’s cult band, writes:

“He [my father] had a dream in which people were living isolated lives in soulless buildings, staring silently at screens. But you could reject this way of living and down the road was this shambolic building with lots of lichts and sounds of cheerful chaos coming out of it. And this was the Penguin Café. It had long tables, a bar, and at the back there was always a band playing, and this was the music that my father started writing.”

And THAT is the spirit of the original that they capture to perfection – simple, idealistic, romantic, joyous, music that joins together communities and generations, warm-hearted, life-affirming…”cheerful chaos.” I couldn’t put it much better; THAT is what their music sounds like.

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra play at the Snape Proms on August 16.

Snape Proms