Graham Fitkin & London Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall – Track to Track

Night Mail
Maxwell Davies
Farewell to Stromness
St Paul’s Suite, Op.29/2
Music Junction, arr. Tim Steiner
Track to Track
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Henry V – Touch her soft lips, and part
Track to Track: The Athlon [world premiere]

Glyn Maxwell (narrator)

London Chamber Orchestra
Rosemary Furniss (violin)

Graham Fitkin Band
Graham Fitkin (piano)

Music Junction – musicians and singers of Tonbridge Grammar School, Meadows School, and Skinners’ Kent Academy

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 22 March, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

An intriguing concert that loosely united the themes of the Olympics, travel, pageantry, memorial, and the role of music within education – quite a portfolio for an evening’s entertainment. That it worked was helped enormously by the quality and enthusiasm of the performances from the London Chamber Orchestra and Music Junction, the speed of the stage crew between pieces and the easy nature of Graham Fitkin as pianist, conductor and compère.

The biggest criticism would be that the role of the schools and their piece, Track to Track, which began the second half, was not properly recognised either in the programme or in the introduction – for Music Junction is the London Chamber Orchestra’s education project. It was left for the audience to second-guess the involvement of the musicians and voices, the text used, and the inspiration behind the piece, other than it being rail-travel. The pupils of the three Kent schools involved in the project were clearly enjoying themselves, and this translated through to the music, the orchestra their equal in terms of enthusiasm, providing musical support to the not-credited director.

On the theme of travel we began with Britten’s Night Mail, complete with its original motion picture, W. H. Auden’s text read with commendable clarity by poet Glyn Maxwell. This was a punchy performance, with percussionist Tristan Fry taking it upon himself to imitate a steam train, something he did with commendable accuracy!

We had to wait until the end of the evening for Fitkin and Maxwell’s response to Britten’s miniature, maybe the first genuine music composed for a (pre-war) documentary. The response, a commission for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, focussed on a rather different sort of train, the one ferrying Olympic spectators from St Pancras to Stratford – an electric vehicle lacking the rhythms of previous models. This presented a challenge to Fitkin, the question being if he should portray speed in his music. In the event it fell halfway between slow and fast, with Maxwell’s intriguing but sometimes distracting words forming the bit to which he responded. The performance was excellent, and the keen sense of structure, one of Fitkin’s strongest compositional traits, meant momentum did not flag.

Three short pieces of memorial and love made their understated impact. Peter Maxwell Davies’s Farewell to Stromness, here performed in an arrangement for string orchestra rather than solo piano, benefited from the burnished tones of the LCO strings, Rosemary Furniss choosing the ideal tempo. Walton’s ‘Touch Her Soft Lips and Part’ from his music for Olivier’s film of Henry V was also a treasure, understated but keenly felt. Only Arvo Pärt’s haunting Cantus, despite acquiring the necessary heft as it progressed, felt a little wrong, with the bells played from the balcony by Joby Burgess but curiously backward in the sound-picture.

The inclusion of Holst’s Suite for the St Paul’s school for girls was a nice touch, given the schoolgirls in the audience, but also because this attractive four-movement work deserves greater exposure. The third movement ‘Intermezzo’ was particularly affecting, its melody of Eastern origins providing a nice contrast with the folksy English tunes enjoyed elsewhere, but what Furniss and her charges, playing immaculately in unison when required, were able to communicate was the composer’s concentrated methods and joy in his source material.

The three pieces Fitkin chose to complement his premiere were also effective, showcasing his form of minimalism that is very different to Steve Reich, say, setting out all of its cells early on but stressing their melodic content through repetition and subtle development. Totti, composed in honour of the Italian footballer, did not sound like it was depicting anything to do with the ‘beautiful game’. Indeed, had it been a cyclist who was the subject it would have been easier to understand the pictorial references, but as a piece of music its energy was infectious, taking its lead from the harmony Reich uses in Six Pianos.

Watching was far more affecting, with saxophonist Simon Haram finding a beautiful soft tone for his melody, the music gradually growing in response. Vamp was a lot of fun, with Fitkin whirling around a boogie-woogie riff on the piano which was taken up by his band, while the vamp herself could be felt in a sultry triple-time interlude, whose music came to dominate. The band’s performances were uniformly excellent; the balance between electric and acoustic finely balanced in the rewarding space that Cadogan Hall offers.

There was something for everyone in this concert – and the smiles on faces at the end of young and old confirmed it as a succession of successful musical postcards and chapters.

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