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Durham Concerto

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

5 April 2008

Michael Nyman, gdm for marimba and orchestra
Clark Rundell, conductor
Colin Currie, marimba

James MacMillan, Piano Concerto No. 2
Clark Rundell, conductor
Joanna MacGregor, piano

Encore: Astor Piazzolla, Libertango (solo piano)
Joanna MacGregor, piano

Jon Lord, Durham Concerto
Mischa Damev, conductor
Jon Lord, Hammond organ
Ruth Palmer, violin
Jonathan Aasgaard, cello
Kathryn Tickell, Northumbrian pipes

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

About an hour before the concert itself, there was a 30-minute interview with Michael Nyman, Jon Lord, and Colin Currie in the main auditorium. It was reasonably entertaining and I was surprised to see that only a small fraction of the concert audience attended it, considering it was free to ticket holders!

The concert itself was nowhere near a sell-out. Half the circle was empty and I could see scattered empty seats in the stalls. Listening to people talk, I gathered that half the audience were Deep Purple fans and the other half were Classic FM listeners (CFM has been heavily plugging the Durham Concerto since its release). With that audience, I think the programme was badly thought out. Nobody that I overheard was there to hear the Nyman or MacMillan pieces. So the people who have been Jon Lord fans for years would have gone anyway, no matter what else was on the programme, and the casual Classic FM punters probably stayed at home because there was no Lark Ascending or Hovis Advert Symphony, or anything else they knew. (I also thought it was odd to choose three pieces of music that had such big and unwieldy solo instruments (marimba, piano, Hammond organ), requiring considerable stage rearrangement between each piece.

Oh well. What do I know about concert promotion? On with the music (which I also know nothing about...)

Michael Nyman sounded like he was on the same wavelength as Jon Lord in his approach to music, and after hearing him talk I was quite keen on hearing gdm. I don't know anything else by the composer, but this sounded cool.

Well, ok, I actually found it a bit tedious. It had some great moments — generally whenever the marimba introduced a new theme — but then those themes repeated and repeated and generally overstayed their welcome. Perhaps it had some clever structure going on but I couldn't see it. I didn't exactly hate it but I can't see myself rushing to listen to it again.

I didn't know James MacMillan's Piano Concerto but I've generally disliked everything I've heard from the composer so I wasn't expecting great things.

In fact, it was fantastic. I don't know if it's that I'm more receptive to modern music these days, or if it's just that music really should be listened to live, or what, but I was captivated for the entire 30 minutes. The Piano Concerto is unconventional, dissonant, chaotic, hard to follow, and absolutely marvellous.

How to describe it? Parts of it reminded me of (don't laugh) Yes, where you get a rhythmic, chaotic band passage stopping dead to give way to a quiet, reflective piano solo. It's got half-familiar Scottish themes running through it, including a jig (or is it a reel?) where the pianist turns around and plays a snare drum! There are beautiful parts where the music is almost lyrical... then it goes completely off it again...

And Joanna MacGregor is incredible. I've never heard (or seen) piano playing quite like it. She also played a (well-deserved) encore piece: Piazzolla's Libertango. Which is... quite literally... indescribable. I would go and see her again, playing music like this.

By the interval I was well pleased.

But I freely admit that I was only there to hear the Durham Concerto for the second time, and I got more than my money's worth in the second half of the concert. It was even better the second time round. But I'll try to forget that Jon Lord has been my musical idol for my entire adult life, and give an unbiased view of the concert.

As I mentioned to Jon (*cough* name dropping) after the show, the atmosphere of the Cathedral wasn't there. Philharmonic Hall is nice enough but there's no way it can match Durham Cathedral as a building. But as he quite rightly responded, what the Hall loses in atmosphere it more than makes up for in acoustics and sound clarity. It doesn't have the enveloping reverb of the Cathedral but I'm sure that the clean, precise sound in the Hall was a lot closer to what the composer wanted us to hear. Every solo instrument stood out perfectly and I heard a lot of new subtleties (particularly from the organ, which plays a bigger role than was first apparent).

(There was an annoying hiss from the auditorium's right-hand speaker stack all through the first half of the concert but this had been cured by the second half. I Assume they didn't need the PA for Jon's music!)

Familiarity with the music also helps. When you know what's coming next, what you're hearing now makes a lot more sense. (Does that make sense?)

And finally, I was in a perfect seat to watch the orchestra — centre of the front row of the circle, so I could look down on the entire orchestra. It's much more interesting to see who is doing what, and that was impossible in the Cathedral.

It's true, great music really should be heard live.

So overall the second listening was definitely worth the trip. I'm already looking forward to a third, and many more.

Do I need to describe the music? I don't think I can... from the first notes to the last crescendo, it's beautiful. There are recurring themes that tie the movements together. The violin solo parts are exquisite. The percussion is as dramatic as you would expect from a man who spent 35 years in the world's greatest rock band. There's a beautiful harp contribution that I never even noticed before. And there's a Hammond organ.

Why is there a Hammond organ? It's not exactly a conventional orchestral instrument. There has to be a more compelling reason for including it than because it's "the composer's instrument". The Northumbrian pipes — yes, essential to the concept of the music. But the Hammond organ?

The piece has, effectively, six movements. The traditional three movements of a concerto are each divided into two distinct parts. This means that there are two slow movements.

Think about this for a minute. After the tension of a slow concerto  movement, you need the release of the big finale to balance things out. Jon's structure means that after the achingly beautiful violin-led slow third movement, you get an even slower fourth movement, and this one features long solos from the most melancholic instrument in the orchestra — the cello. By the time it's all done, and you've been listening to 20 minutes of this quiet, introspective music, you're wound up so tight that you need something to let your breath out again...

And then the fifth movement starts and you hear:

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

And that's why there's a Hammond organ. Nothing else could have done it. It's the most joyous sound on the planet, and the whole orchestra responds with the most uplifting, foot-tapping, scherzo sort of thing that... well, for me, this movement makes the whole piece. From the organ swell to the dance tune, to the bombastic horn tune, to the drunken bassoon player (!), all underpinned by thunderous marching-band percussion — the movement seems blatantly inspired by Malcolm Arnold (I'm sure Jon won't mind me saying that), and it's pure listening perfection. If I had to hold up one thing to show people that Jon Lord really knows how to put music together, it would be this movement.

Then it's all over, and the smallpipes lead us into the beautiful finale.

It's music that makes me want to hear it all again immediately.

That's all I can say. It's not much like my usual reviews but I don't really know how to write about classical music.

After the show Jon sat out and signed CDs for what seemed like an hour. He didn't just sign and move on — for every person, he shook their hand and found something to say to them.

A real gentleman.

Thank you.

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