Judith Lang Zaimont
Symphony for Wind Orchestra in Three Scenes [World Premiere]
Music for The Tocher
Verklärte Nacht [1943 Revision]
Concerto for Turntable and Chamber Orchestra [World Premiere]
TCM String Ensemble
TCM Wind Orchestra
TCM Film Project Ensemble
DJ Yoda (turntables)
TCM Contemporary Music Group
Reviewed by: Edward Lewis
Reviewed: 6 April, 2006
Venue: Concert Hall, Blackheath Halls, London, SE3
At a time when concert-giving organisations are going to extreme lengths to make classical programmes more accessible to the public, it is refreshing to see Trinity College of Music carefully balancing accessibility with exclusivity.
While the second event of the evening, featuring Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntable and Chamber Orchestra promised to attract hitherto untapped sectors of potential audiences, the first concert, entitled “Verklärte Nacht”, was started dead on time leaving a portion of the audience huddled in a somewhat disgruntled mob outside the Hall still queuing at the box office. My ability to review the first movement of Judith Lang Zaimont’s Symphony for Wind Orchestra in Three Scenes is therefore limited, but my perception of it can best be summed up as akin to a poltergeist undergoing a bout of particularly energetic music therapy. Still, perhaps what you’d expect from a movement entitled ‘Growler’.
Which has to be better than the next movement (which I enjoyed from inside the auditorium), which marauded under the moniker ‘Dreamz’. I never feel at ease with post-modernist irony, but I don’t think that mattered here. The base abuse of the language in the name of nu koolness is the verbal equivalent of writing loud music in awkward time signaturz with a surfeit of percussion and passages for solo wind chimz in lieu of musical structure. Which was strangely apt. The warning signs were there, though – a composer’s biography that feels the need to stress how well-known they are is felling its own argument, and one should never trust a biography that lists each and every award ever won. I once won a prize, at the tender age of eight, for needlework, but I have the decency and modesty not to mention it.
There was some downright beautiful flugelhorn playing, and the percussion section was energetically efficient and assured. Sadly, some of the performance lacked a certain conviction, with a few moments of weak tuning, especially prevalent in the upper woodwind sections, interrupting an otherwise proficient and musically coherent performance.
Next up were performances of short film scores by Trinity’s own students, complete with archive films produced by the old GPO. “Rainbow Dance” proved to be a psychedelic abstract work, involving dancing figures, a drug-induced game of tennis and the concluding promise that all this could be yours with a GPO savings book. Luke Harris’s score embraced the abstract nature of the film, if at the cost of coherence, both in musical form and cohesion with the visuals themselves. Musical gestures were at odds with visual ones, and the rather vector-less score seemed to sit uneasily with the inherent rhythm of the film.
Dominic Irving’s score for the same film, however, found this rhythm, and embraced it with glorious elements of jazz and scoring reminiscent of ‘traditional’ cartoon scores. The score generated a humour of its own, shaping an otherwise ambiguous film with strong musical direction and a joyous, unstudied conviction.
Denise Mangiardi-Oxbrow’s score for “The Tocher” – a silhouetted tale of knights wining the love of the princess upon the production of a GPO Savings Book – near perfectly struck a delicate balance between gestural writing, ‘mickey mousing’ to the image and musical definition. The instrumentation was well-chosen and superbly used, with the writing evoking the instant changes of atmosphere necessary in such a short time-frame, whilst maintaining a musical cohesiveness and beauty in-keeping with the film.
Marc Findon’s score, again for the same film, utilised a different approach – one much more reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for “Vertigo” and “Cape Fear”. Whilst this is no bad thing in itself, it seemed a little heavy-handed for such a delicate and short film. The combination of thematic and textural characterisation was well constructed, although the orchestration and part-writing remained unconvincing at times.
The Trinity String Ensemble’s performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht concluded the concert, in a well-judged and paced rendition under the baton of Nicholas Pendlebury. A bridling sense of passion and excitement was held tantalisingly under the surface, kept at bay by some beautiful phrase-shaping and a well-rounded sound, and dusted with some sensitive and tender solo playing. A lack of ensemble, at times relatively severe, and some serious tuning and tone problems inside the individual sections unfortunately countered this, which really shouldn’t be present in what is essentially an ensemble of professional standard.
And now, as they say, for something completely different (and a late-evening offering). Chimera Productions, under the helm of pianist Will Dutta, commissioned Gabriel Prokofiev to write a work for Turntable and Chamber Orchestra, and thus boldly go where no composer has gone before. Dutta sombrely informed the bizarre crowd of studiously dressed-down crossover fans with enough piercing between them to be melted down and make a serious contribution to a future war-effort, was history in the making.
Now, that suggests just a little bit of aggrandisement to me. I don’t recall Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” beginning “Two households, both alike in dignity, and listen carefully to this next bit, because it’s going down in history”.
Trinity’s Contemporary Group is a very professional, competent and skilled body of performers. They handled the complex rhythms and timings that littered Prokofiev’s work with quiet efficiency, under the energetic directorship of the talented (and brave) Andrew Morley. DJ Yoda, an artist of whom I have little previous experience, came across as a wonderfully unassuming and incredibly skilled performer, working his magic with utter accuracy and precision.
The work itself explored the various techniques available to a DJ, and attempted to integrate these into concert music. To this end it proved an interesting experiment, with rhythmic patterns and the interaction of motivic cells providing a constantly shifting focal point. But this strength was double-edged, in so far as the various movements had to maintain a rigid and inflexible tempo, allowing the performers little room for expression. The atmosphere was, probably unavoidably, one of watching a circus high-wire performer totter, albeit proficiently, over a pool of sharks, but without the excitement.
Despite an array of obvious rhythmic influences, the music rarely seemed to captivate in its own right, and suffered overly from serving as a vehicle for this stylistic fusion. Furthermore, the turntables often seemed to play an equal role in the ensemble, rather than take the lead role, which was gently disappointing. Musical ideas failed to develop fully, and wonderful moments of interplay between DJ and orchestra were too quickly lost in the search for new tricks.
Don’t get me wrong – the concept and performance were both fascinating, and demonstrated a vast array of consummate musicianship. But there can be over-reliance upon a central gimmick, which can obscure the need for strong and musically fulfilling writing. As far the use of turntables, while certainly a step towards fusing diverse musical cultures, I’m not convinced it was quite as earth-shattering as Dutta would have us believe.