High Sheriff's Concert (Launch Concert)  June 18 2016

Review by Jonathan Lane

On Saturday evening St George's hosted the High Sheriff's Concert, an annual fundraising event to the benefit of Bristol Youth Community Action and a charity of the High Sheriff's choice. The performance was also the inaugural concert of the newly formed Bristol Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Will Goodchild, with the Senegalese kora player Mamadou Cissokho as soloist, in an eclectic programme of music selected by the High Sheriff. The current incumbent, Helen Wilde, opted to support St George's big extension project, with an interesting choice of music based on personal and family ties and experiences, including a specially commissioned piece. It was a real pleasure to hear a programme of little known but fascinating music played so enthusiastically by an ensemble of very predominantly young people. Reflecting on her Scottish heritage, Mrs Wilde's first piece was Hamish MacCunn's 'Land of the Mountain and the Flood', familiar to many as the theme to BBC's 'Sutherland's Law'. It's an unashamedly optimistic romantic piece, replete with strong melody and robust orchestration, and the orchestra warmed and settled to spirited, integrated playing under Mr Goodchild's confident and encouraging direction.

The following two pieces reflected Ms Wilde's family associations with Africa. First we heard three movements from the 'African Suite for Strings' by the Nigerian composer and performer Fela Sowande, who died in 1987 and was unknown to me. Sowande was a self-made musician of great determination, growing up in Lagos in southern Nigeria actively involved in the Yoruba and other musical traditions of the West African coastal countries. He moved to London in the 1930s to study composition and as an organist, absorbing some of the vast European classical tradition but also the American jazz scene, performing as a pianist and bandleader with Fats Waller and others. The African Suite is very firmly English, rooted in the world of Vaughan Williams' reworking of the 16th century polyphonic tradition. We heard three movements, varying greatly in content if not in style: 'Joyful Day' was a lively arrangement of a typically energetic and rhythmic Gold Coast melody; 'Nostalgia', an original graceful melody in a sumptuous resonant string arrangement closely derived from Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, even down to a beautiful solo viola passage; and finally 'Akinla', a Nigerian folk melody in typically syncopated African cross rhythms with more than a hint of tango in some places, perhaps a glimpse of his work with Latin influenced London dance bands. All were played with dedicated enthusiasm, consistently tight ensemble and good balance, with only occasional moments hinting at the mere six month history of this orchestra.

 

The first half concluded with Mrs Wilde's commission, the Kora Concerto. With a smile or two she told the packed audience that she had expected cello or violin or piano, but was presented with the unexpected suggestion of kora, then unknown to her. The kora is West African harp, made with traditional local materials: hardwood, hide and calabash, and strung with nylon fishing line, as humorously described to us by the soloist, Bristol based Mr Cissokho. The kora has a fresh delicate articulate tone and subtle but firm bass, and the playing style is at the same time melodic, decorative and rhythmic. Mr Goodchild explained the methods and difficulties of collaborative composition by two such culturally different writers, as well as the problem of balancing such a quiet intimate instrument with full orchestra. The result is wonderfully joyful work which doesn't try to make an intellectual 'crossover' union of styles, but instead interweaves them in a natural and unselfconscious way. 

 

I had the pleasure a few years ago of recording a CD with Senegalese griot kora player Seckou Keita, so I came to this piece knowing the capabilities of instrument, arrangement and player, and was impressed on every count. The work is in the standard classical three movement format, but with the master stroke of including as a cement two very important parts for African drums and percussion, played by two of Mr Cissokho's brothers. The composition is condensed but not congested, and despite its collaborative origins and frequently improivisational style it's very tightly conceived. It begins with a well structured and worked Moderato which bubbles with African rhythmic energy and abounds with melodic ideas, but all this is very effectively slightly restrained by relatively conventional orchestration. This allows the kora's at times delicate sounds (sympathetically amplified on stage) to come to the fore in solo passages, but to integrate in tuttis. The orchestral parts are at times very rhythmic and syncopated, and more than once I saw players mouthing counts of time as they played, but the ensemble remained absolutely unanimous throughout. The Andante second movement begins with a beautiful kora solo, infused with an improvised spirit and performed last night with absolute mastery. The orchestra then joins and develops the theme in many ingenious interweavings. More animation develops with the percussion progressively adding muscular African energy, but retaining the leisurely undercurrent. Very sympathetic orchestration gives ample space for the free spirit which pervades the work, and Europe sits very comfortably with Africa. For the final Allegro vivace, the principal clarinet took front stage opposite the kora, and the movement begins with an extended, very intricate yet free unaccompanied duet on a typically rhythmic but lyrical African flavoured theme. After a pause to digest fully this simple beauty the orchestra join and the movement proceeds to work and rework the theme and its fragments in as many ingenious and dramatic ways, with intriguing and inspired syncopated percussion playing. At one stage the solo clarinet returns with the theme amongst the equatorial sunshine, and the work moves to conclusion with drive and some considerable volume! A sunny and invigorating work, worthy of many performances to come. Any orchestra would be put through some tough and unconventional paces, and this young ensemble turned out a performance to be proud of, passionate but unforced and led with care and experience by a conductor whose close relationship with the piece was evident throughout.

 

The second half consisted of Ethel Smyth's Serenade in D, written in 1890 and firmly in the Brahmsian romantic tradition. I knew very little of Ethel Smyth: she was a sparky and determined rebel, pursuing a composing career in defiance of her parents and society's attitudes to the place of women, and she was a vigorous champion of women's suffrage, including a spell in jail for political activism. She was a great friend of Thomas Beecham and met many of the leading composers of the day including Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Schumann, and had a particular friendship with Clara Schumann. The programme notes suggested that this very substantial four movement Serenade is a symphony in all but name, only lacking a true slow movement, and this is very true. It's scored for a complete but unadorned symphony orchestra and written very much in the manner of Brahms, although with a dash of individual impishness and perhaps some of the earlier simplicity and melodic inventiveness of Schubert. The opening Allegro non troppo is a taut structure with competent and inspired working out of strong thematic material and confident, sometimes progressive, full detailed orchestration. Despite the spectre of Brahms in many effective syncopations of three over four there is a deeper individual stylistic mastery of content and structure. The two middle movements are slower and scored primarily for strings and woodwind: firstly an athletic Scherzo based on a lively almost folky theme, subject to some very concise fugal development, and with a contrasting but thematically related more restful middle section. Then there is an Allegretto grazioso (a much favoured marking of Brahms) which passes for the 'slow' symphonic movement. It's light in touch but with many characteristic sudden changes of mood from gracefulness to agility and restrained power which abound in the whole work yet are invariably and skilfully integrated into a smooth narrative arch. The final Allegro con brio 'does what it says on the tin' - it's lively and full of inventive interwoven themes and fragments. As in the first movement, there are many subtle rhythmic surprises and superb use of orchestral colour, especially in the passing of themes, sometimes mid-phrase, between the sections. It is a serious work which deserves more performances and would sit quite confidently in serious programmes far more intellectually compiled than last night's varied selection.

 

The performers amply rewarded our enthusiastic applause with a quirky encore - Leroy Anderson's 'The Typewriter', which dates from the 1960s I believe and his recording of which I can remember owning on a 78 rpm record. Timpanist Christopher Fletcher Campbell dramatically unveiled his Remington and after a humorous 'tuning' routine supplied the very difficult key, carriage return and bell parts featured in this lively and skilfully scored novelty piece. It ended an evening of interesting and immensely varied music, played with passion and professionalism by an enthusiastic new orchestra at the as yet tender age of only six months, well rehearsed and directed under a confident and able conductor.

 

Only mooted in January of this year as an idea and beginning with only three violins, Will Goodchild and leader Pamela Bell have nurtured and coached a fine young ensemble (the usually numerous grey haired section principals were almost entirely absent!) to a very professional standard. I hope that their youthful stage presence will gather a strong young following and also encourage many of Bristol's young and very able orchestral players to take part and carry the orchestra forward and also develop their own musical skills. I wish Will Goodchild and his band the best and look forward to hearing more of them.

Jonathan Lane

Musical Commentator

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