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Posts Tagged ‘Alison Balsom’

I don’t normally blog classical music, except in my monthly round-ups, but I feel compelled to abandon this policy to tell as many people as possible about this extraordinary event. I only found out about it c.10 days before; despite being a Barbican member, it had somehow passed me by. 60 performances, from 15 to 105 minutes long, by 450 performers in seven venues, plus foyers and lakeside, over two days. You exchanged your day or weekend ticket for a wristband and created your own event by seeing whatever took your fancy. 

Saturday started brilliantly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra giving an excellent Firebird Suite, in front of a specially commissioned film synchronised live on stage by the director. This is one of my favourite pieces of music, so I was on a high as I walked over to the lovely St Giles Cripplegate for a recital by favourite countertenor Iestyn Davies and Lutenist Thomas Dunford, but by the time this beautiful concert, mostly Dowland, was over I was in heaven. Next stop was the Conservatory where you picked up earphones and waited for the four character mini-Carmen to begin their short promenade performance, ending with a strangulation under the greenery, almost at my feet. In The Curve the BBC Singers gave a lovely selection of unaccompanied choral pieces in atmospheric lighting. Moving half-way through was a pointless distraction, though. Back in the Hall, I fell in love with the voice and personality of the beautifully named American soprano Angel Joy Blue whose eclectic set was, well, a joy. In the foyer and at the lakeside I encountered Street Orchestra London, a cross between buskers, pop-up and flash-mob. They were a delight and their sense of fun was infectious. Then there was a short walk up the road to the lovely LSO St Luke’s where the Guildhall School post-graduate wind students thrilled with Richard Strauss rarely heard symphony for winds. I has planned to return home at this point. The final Britten Sinfonia concert featured someone called Chilly Gonzales, whose talents apparently included rap, something I’m not fond of, to put it mildly. I had second thoughts as there was by now a buzz about it, so I thought I’d give it a go, sitting on the end of a row in case I decided not to see out the ninety minutes. 1h 45m later I was leading the standing ovation! He deconstructed the Oasis’ song Champagne Supernova as Britten had a Purcell theme and gave us The Young-ish Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I have never laughed so much in a concert, though it was as musically brilliant as it was funny. From Chilly virgin to Chilly fan in an evening, going home on another high.

Sunday started just as well, with the LSO playing a selection of the John Williams film music they originally recorded. It sounded thrilling with almost 100 players on stage and the video interview clips with Williams between pieces, putting them in context, was a great idea. I discovered the second LSO Williams concert was not a repeat (as the BBC SO’s had been the day before), so I was tempted to return, but decided to stay with my plan to support a new work by Sven Helbig with the BBC Singers, Helbig’s electronics and an atmospheric accompanying film. I liked it, though it was dark in the hall and the sound soporific, so I struggled to remain conscious! In between these two events there was a quirky visit to The Curve Gallery where the music came from helium filled balloons as they exhaled and descended. ‘Horn Hangout’, an entertaining Q&A with the LSO horn section was followed by a horn flash-mob at the lakeside as they were joined by members of the Coldstream Guards and amateur players. Great fun. Back in The Curve, you walked through a sound installation in darkness whilst people in black made further sounds and illumination waving what seemed to be pliant light sabres! On to the Hall, where The Academy of Ancient Music played a selection from Handel’s Water Music preceded by a lovely trio of Handel arias from countertenor Tim Mead. Up to the Conservatory again, this time for a percussion sextet playing a one-hour piece called Timber on planks of wood. I didn’t think I’d see it through, but it hypnotised me – like Glass, but wood! The final concert in the Hall was another inspired idea, featuring brass and winds with pieces by Bernstein, Miles Davies after Rodrigo (featuring trumpet player Alison Balsom) and Gershwin. A big, brash, loud statement to close the weekend.

It’s intention was to be accessible, informal and friendly and it certainly achieved that. The performers dressed casually, there was illuminating commentary from the stage, live video for close-ups, free seating and sessions in the foyers and at the lakeside. There was quality music from premiere league orchestras, choirs and soloists, plus GSMD students and I particularly liked the fact it featured works for winds, brass and percussion that get less airtime. The quirky additions were great fun. My personal selection was 14 events in 6 venues and another 4 in the foyers / outside. I enjoyed every single one of them.  Something like ten hours of music; an absolute feast. I can’t wait for the next one, when I intend to take a gang with me.

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You have to admire the ambition of Shakespeare’s Globe. A year after they produce all of the Bard’s plays, each in a different language, they announce a 2-year Hamlet tour to every country in the world – all 205 of them! This show is also ambitious, albeit on a smaller scale than the other two projects, and though they don’t quite pull it off, I still admire the way it stretches the Globe yet again.

I’m not sure why the play is called Gabriel. It isn’t in fact a play, it’s an ‘entertainment’ that includes a number of playets written by Samuel Adamson and a lot of music. The tales involve characters from the late 17th century, including Purcell whose music they use, and appear to be based on true stories. They also include Queen Mary and her nephew the young Duke of Gloucester, trumpeter Matthew Shore and his sons and theatre producers Rich and Betterton. The trumpet is the key as it apparently came about when trumpeter Alison Balsom (who appears / plays) expressed a wish to appear at The Globe and here is the crux of the problem – it appears to be a bit of a vanity project, and you can see the artifice.

There is a much to enjoy. The music is gorgeous and the period trumpet seems entirely at home on this stage. Some of the tales are very funny; I particularly liked the first scene involving the watermen, brilliantly characterised as the black cab drivers of their day, and a satire on opera audiences (nothing changes, it seems). It’s often racy – I can’t even begin to tell you how Kate is rewarded for giving an acting lesson – and an infectious bawdiness lingers over the proceedings. It even contains the most original use of the trumpet – using its bell to cover a man’s private parts! It has clearly been well rehearsed and the idea of staging the sort of semi-opera of the period is an excellent one. Sadly, it doesn’t produce a cohesive evening. The tone changes too dramatically at times, it comes over as a bit of a rag bag and at 2 hours 45 minutes, it’s about 30 mins too long.

The musicians play well whilst moving around and there are some fine performances, in particular from sometime Nancy Jessie Buckley who sings Purcell’s songs beautifully and acts well (including when she’s getting her reward for an acting lesson!). Jonathan Fensom’s period costumes and design are excellent and the space is well used, with a platform jutting out at the upper level, linked to the stage by a staircase. The stage itself has grown three oval wings, which opens up the action (albeit at the expense of the grounding’s space).

This was only the third performance and Dominic Dromgoole’s staging was a bit ragged at the edges, particularly with the dance and movement, but it will have to sharpen and shorten significantly to be a real success. They also need to look at the audibility issues, as some dialogue is lost when there is music in the background. That said, I don’t regret going and admired its ambition and originality, the music and the humour.

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