Bach Meets Moondog

Bach arr. MacGregor
The Art of the Fugue
Louis ‘Moondog’ Hardin arr. MacGregor
Sidewalk Dances

Joanna MacGregor (conductor, piano & keyboards)
Andy Sheppard (soprano & tenor saxophones)
Kuljit Bhamra (tabla, percussion & speaker)
Neville Malcolm (double bass & upright bass)
Seb Rochford (percussion)
Matthew Fairclough (sound)

Britten Sinfonia:
Jacqueline Shave & Warren Zielinski (violin & shaker); Clare Finnemore & Bridget Carey (viola, shaker & voice); Caroline Dearnley & Julia Vohralik (cello & shaker); Markus Van Horn (double bass); David Cuthbert (flute, alto flute, piccolo & whistle); Joy Farrall (clarinet & bass clarinet); Joanna Cackett (bassoon, contra bassoon & whistle); Jeff Bryant & Andrew Sutton (horn), Nick Thompson (trumpet & voice); Simon Gunton (trombone, bass trumpet & voice)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 15 November, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Most of the evening was raucous and jubilant. It began, however, in hushed isolation. From the piano, Joanna Macgregor gave ‘Contrapuctus I’ (from The Art of the Fugue) an utterly magical, tender and inauthentic interpretation, transcending its mid-eighteenth-century origin. A gently insistent forward swell was grave and timeless, very quiet and very sad. A lament. The theme, you may remember, is renowned for being ‘dry’ and ‘academic’. Not here. Trickling through MacGregor’s nimble fingers, Bach’s theme unforgettably joined the emotional experience of the human race. This was a surprise!

The next surprise was a fugue that swung. Rough, rasping brass made the large-band pronouncement – declamatory and blaring, rather frightening. As more and more of the Britten Sinfonia joined in, we drove toward sprightlier syncopation – as this rasping twentieth-century vigour took its place beside the velvety early nineteenth-century refinement that had preceded it.

The adventure continued. We heard a resounding version from amplified plucked strings, intervention from an electronic guitar, delicious double bass front-line backing from Neville Malcolm. We heard rough, guttural comments from Andy Sheppard’s saxophones – and his less-frequent silky interventions; delectable nonetheless.

Twice the strings turned themselves into a sedate Baroque ensemble, sounding both out-of-place and in-place. Throughout, and gloriously, we heard individual members of the Britten Sinfonia play what were in effect exultant cadenzas – on horns, trumpet, bassoon, flute and clarinet. Note the string players’ skill with the shaker. Above all – twice – a joyous cacophony from all musicians blasted away in a glory of controlled improvisation. The Queen Elizabeth Hall nearly rocked with the vigour of these musicians enjoying themselves whole-heartedly.

Recall the absence of particular instrumentation in Bach’s original – and, hence, the freedom it to offer one’s own version. Remember Leonhardt on the harpsichord, Gould on the piano, Helmut Wacha on the organ, the London Gabrieli Wind Ensemble, the Delmé Quartet, the Emerson Quartet and Scherchen’s arrangement for full orchestra.

Why should not MacGregor make a more modern arrangement? Recall, too, the Dowland Project that intersperses ‘straight’ versions of Dowland’s vocal line with lively, jazzier commentaries. Jazz, one might say, revived the practice of playing in counterpoint rather than harmony.

When we heard a bare-boarded version from Seb Rochford and a beguiling, endless version for raga from Kuljit Bhamra, it became clear that Joanna MacGregor’s intent was to celebrate all music, beginning – and where else should one begin from? – with Bach.

The Sidewalk Dances were similar. Joanna MacGregor made these arrangements before she turned her attention to Bach. She clearly wished to celebrate the blind musician, Louis ‘Moondog’ Hardin, habitually dressed as a Viking, whose musical originality had so impressed her in the QEH in 1989. One could see why. These brief pieces have a grand spareness. They gave notice of how music began. The dances were, in effect, a notebook of acute, wide-ranging sonic observations. Then MacGregor, in respect – and, indeed, deference – to this master of the terse statement, amplified the original text somewhat and gave it more colour than it originally possessed. This was music of the street, the gutter, the fountain, the thrusting sidewalk bustle and the traffic jam. It was alive. It celebrated life.

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