High Sheriff's Concert (Launch Concert) June 18 2016
Review by Philip Sweeney
The Bristol Symphony Orchestra Debut Concert - Saturday 18th June, 2016, high excitement at St George’s Bristol, the concert hall with the best acoustic in Europe according to Sir Simon Rattle, and the worst ladies lavatories, according to the queue of hopeful clients (only temporarily: renovation works and flooding). The atmosphere was a mixture of the Proms, Royal Ascot and WOMAD. This was the debut concert of the brand new Bristol Symphony Orchestra, and the many friends and followers of the sixty well established players ensured a pretty boisterous reception, just short of vuvuzelas and flares. The hint of Ascot was set by the feathery ceremonial headgear of the High Sheriff of Bristol, Helen Wilde. As for WOMAD, which let’s not forget started out round the corner in Park Street, there was the presence of a trio of Senegalese musicians, key elements of the evening’s most eagerly awaited item. This was Concerto for Kora and Orchestra, a specially composed new work by the Bristol Symphony’s conductor William Goodchild and the Bristol-based musician Mamadou Cissokho, a virtuoso of the kora, the West African harp-lute.
The Kora Concerto was commissioned as centre piece of the annual High Sheriff’s Concert, held for the first time in St George’s rather than the Cathedral. The African theme was down to the Sheriff’s consort, Peter Wilde, whose childhood was spent with his vet father, partly in Nigeria. This resulted in an immediate “Yes!” when Goodchild, a prolific composer of internationally flavoured film and television music, tentatively proposed the kora as star of the new work. A Scottish shading was added to the rest of the programme, a nod to Helen Wilde’s family roots.
One thing missing from the evening was the WOMAD crowd, as many of the familiar faces from St George’s world music concerts seemed to be absent. A shame, because, though koras are common in the UK these days – there was another practitioner, Sona Diabate, playing at the same time across town - koras plus symphony orchestras are rare treats. This is exactly the sort of gap the Bristol Symphony looks set to fill, with a mission statement strong on presenting unusual work. A welcome side effect of this, as Goodchild commented afterwards, is that audiences are free to react spontaneously to new discoveries, favourably or otherwise, freed from the burden of reverence imposed by the great classics.
The evening got off to a nineteenth century Celtic start, Land of the Mountain and the Flood, a liltingly captivating piece very successful in the 1890s and again, due to a TV series, in the 1970s, by the Scottish Romantic composer Hamish McCunn, whose aesthetic preoccupations were likened to Sir Walter Scott’s. The final item was the contemporaneous Serenade in D by Dame Ethel Smyth, firebrand, suffragette, friend of Virginia Woolf and Emmeline Pankhurst, musical follower of Dvorak, Clara Schumann and Brahms, adept at transforming deceptively gentle interludes into vigorous rhythmic finales. In between we got not one but two slices of Africa.
First, an ultra-rare performance of African Suite for Strings, by a musician known as the father of Nigerian art music, the Other Fela, the Lagos born composer, keyboardist, bandleader, and choirmaster Fela Sowande, like his namesake the late Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti, a one time classical music student in London, in Sowande’s case in the 1930s. The Suite, an attractive mixture of pentatonic folk motifs, Vaughan Williams-shaded nostalgia for England, and exuberant dance-based finale, handled with great sensitivity by the Orchestra, set the tone for the Kora Concerto.
For this, Cissokho, in green wax-cloth tunic and bowler hat, smart cream amplified kora strapped to waist, arrived centre stage, in front of two brothers sitting over a collection of drums. The three movements introduced the kora’s soft rippling nylon-stringed palette, set it against a subtle lilting accompaniment from the orchestra, allowed it to expand via a solo section composed by Cissokho, and end on a rich tapestry of musical conversations, to quote the programme note, based on a traditional wedding song. High points included the pretty improvised duet between the kora and the clarinet of Sophie Wilsdon, much better than the more obvious string pairing, and the novel excitement of the swell of a full string section appearing behind the delicate arpeggios of the kora. Among appetite-whetters was the percussion, subtle, restrained, maybe even excessively so, as the urgent babbling of a Senegalese talking drum let off the leash is a sound of awe and beauty.
Along the way, short commentaries from Goodchild, Cissokho and the orchestra leader and first violin Pamela Bell filled in background on the works and composers along with practical tips on the use of kora strings for fishing or the inadvisability of making eye contact with trombonists, (it just encourages them). There was even a fun encore, the 1950 novelty piece The Typewriter showcasing timpanist Christopher Fletcher-Campbell’s second instrument, a vintage Underwood. All in all, a highly auspicious debut for the Bristol Symphony. If I were wearing the High Sheriff’s Stetson, I’d be thinking seriously of a second African commission, centred round a pyrotechnic duel between Senegalese talking drum and word processor.
Philip Sweeney, Music Journalist
(The Independent and The Guardian)