El sálon México
Piazzolla arr. John Adams
La Mufa; Todo Buenos Aires
Rodeo – Hoe-Down
Alina Ibragimova (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Fanfare for the Common Man
Solemn Entrance of the Knights of St John
Cantata 140 – Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme [arr. Enrique Crespo]
Alejandro Scarpino & Juan Calderella
Canaro en Paris
Zequinha de Abreu
Guerra de Secciones
I Got Rhythm [arr. Roger Harvey]
Venezuelan Brass Ensemble
Reviewed by: Edward Lewis
Reviewed: 18 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
What we lost in the form of the injured Maxim Vengerov, who was due to play the Viola Tango Rock Concerto by Benjamin Yusupov, with the composer conducting, was more than made up for with the eleventh-hour replacement of the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble to join the already-booked London Symphony Orchestra.
An odd mix, you might think, and you might be right, but one that made for an exciting journey. The LSO skilfully imbued Copland’s El salón México with a higher concentration of rugged character than a Dickens novel, energetically and effortlessly driven by François-Xavier Roth. The crisp, naughtily brash opening brass phrases left us in no doubt we were headed south, where we were lured into further sins by the subsequent nonchalant swagger.
Sadly, we had to pause, presumably by the slightly humour-less border guards in the form of the faintly direction-less Piazzolla works, which lacked the seemingly required rhythmic clarity. La mufa, in particular, was ill at ease, with the typical John Adams textures at odds with the Latino ambience, but to which Alina Ibragimova added a stylish and spirited performance. More curious yet was Piazzolla’s Tangazo: its hardly concealed derivative styles would have had customs officials politely interested, and Shostakovich, Bartók and Richard Strauss turning to copyright lawyers; after which we sped through Prokofiev-like scenery, pausing briefly and bloodily in a deserted border town for something surprisingly akin to the shower scene in “Psycho”, then viewed an 80s’ heist movie and settled somewhere David Lynch would have felt at home. In the verbally economic words of one of my old tutors: “Where is this going?”
Where indeed? Back to Copland, and a return to zest, fire and a whole ranch of bucking broncos. Not to mention the doubly talented xylophonist, whose impressive agility was ably matched by his enthusiastic whooping, adding to an already rousing rendition.
And now we have crossed the border. The Venezuelan Brass Ensemble (from the Simón Bolivar National Youth Orchestra) may not have the international reputation of the LSO, but it should do. The musicians of one of London’s finest orchestras can do a huge amount, hugely well. But you can’t compete with the real thing, and the VBE touched parts that other ensembles can’t reach. The first word is ‘virtuosity’. The next words are ‘pass me my alpaca waistcoat, we’re going to party like there’s no Mexican border’. Launching into Fanfare for the Common Man, we were treated to a unique blend of force, no-nonsense interpretation and some of the most-accomplished unison-trumpet-playing. Just in case we were wondering if we had travelled on a one-trick pony, we were disabused of this notion by the subtlety, control and sublime tonal variations afforded to the Strauss.
There are very few words that can accurately describe the power of this Ensemble: at least, very few that I can use before the watershed. With twenty trumpets, ten trombones and eleven horns, you could have used them to steer shipping away from rocks in a blind fog. And I have never, ever, seen a percussionist nearly knock a large tam-tam over. But this wasn’t just unharnessed force of numbers, even if for most of the concert one felt balanced on the exciting knife-edge of the wonderful chaos of freedom. Underlying this was a group of astonishingly accomplished musicians, working for the dual aims of producing high-quality music and making sure that everyone had a thoroughly good time.
As for the virtuosity, one could cite xylophone-playing that appeared to defy the laws of time and space in “Gran fanfaria” (itself written by one of the trumpeters) the superbly co-ordinated percussion section (of nine persons) evident in “Tico tico”, and the trim, understated but technically highly accomplished trumpet-playing in the old-style “Canaro en Paris”.
Alongside these dazzling displays of instrumental ability was the seemingly casual yet inevitable descent into Latino or Hispanic fervour, demonstrated aptly in “Guerra de Seccions” – a piece resembling a riot in a Mexican prison. A musical one, mind, with demon trumpeters, some spirited call-and-response action, and two conch-players thrown over the barbed wire for good measure.
Rounding off what must be called, for want of a more emotive word, the concert, was Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. The Latin way – which involves a percussion section with more fire than the Cutty Sark on a bank holiday, a full trumpet section provocatively waggling their rears, five giant tubas shimmying, bells up, and the dissolution of the horn and trombone sections as they danced around the stage.
And, funnily enough, I don’t think the audience was in a hurry to climb back on the Greyhound bus back across the border. This was music-making that felt right – a total lack of pretension, highly entertaining and astonishingly masterful.