Esther Swift

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

18 January 2019

This is the second time I've heard The Light Gatherer. Last time I wrote something about how it's a pity I'll never get the chance to hear it again. And now, less than a year later, I'm seeing the same ensemble playing it again. This time in the "New Auditorium" of the Royal Concert Hall, which feels and sounds perfect for this music.

A 40-minute suite of complex modern music for 11 musicians isn't something that remains in your mind like a pop song after just one listen. If you'd asked me a week ago I wouldn't have been able to hum any of it (other than the final movement, which is re-purposed from an older piece I know well). So it's funny how familiar it all felt on second listen. From the opening "breathing" passage, to the four-part harp tunes, to the spoken-word poetry sections, it all felt like something I've know for years. And again I am completely captivated by the music. The more I hear Esther Swift, the more I am convinced that she's the best composer writing today.

And, I don't think I've mentioned this before but for some reason it was especially obvious tonight: she has an incredible voice.

So I've headed this review "Esther Swift", because she's why I came, but top billing for the concert went to Paul Towndrow with his new work Deepening the River, an hour-long piece which made up the second half of the concert after the interval. I'd never even heard of him before, and contemporary classical music can sometimes be a bit "challenging", but I was going in with an open mind and hoping that it would at least be interesting.

Well, my first assumption (based on nothing more than him being paired with Esther Swift) was completely wrong: he's not a classical composer, he's a jazz musician.

Here I am, expecting some avant-garde atonal classical cleverness, and... it's jazz. Deepening the River is an hour-long continuous suite of jazz music, played by a 20-piece jazz band supplemented by a folk group and a tabla player.

For the first minute I didn't know what to make of it. But by the first trumpet solo I was hooked, and by the bagpipe solo I was convinced this was the most awesome thing I've ever heard.

And now I understood why the audience had clapped all the way through The Light Gatherer: they're here for jazz, and that's what jazz audiences seem to do. I'm used to classical concerts where you don't clap until the very end, or rock concerts where you clap mainly when the singer tells you to. But the jazz audience claps after Every. Single. Solo. And when you've got a 60-minute piece of music that's basically 20-plus musicians all soloing one after the other, that's a lot of clapping! It's just a completely different environment from any I'm used to.

But, honestly, every musician deserved his or her applause. The solos just rolled on and on, one after the other, just like the best bits of the best rock concert you've ever seen. I'm not sure if they were scored or improvised, the musicians were reading from scores but when each stood up to solo it felt completely off-the cuff.

So, did Paul Towndrow and his jazz orchestra upstage Esther Swift and her chamber ensemble? He got the standing ovation, so I guess most of the audience thought so (but presumably they were here specifically for him). As for me ... well ... I still think Esther Swift is my favourite new composer, and it's hard to beat the magic of her harp quartet, but Paul Towndrow and his band were just ... something else. (Why do I feel a compulsion to add the word "man" at the end of that sentence?)

The truth is, either half of tonight's concert could have been the best concert I've ever seen. Both were awesome, and I'd jump at the chance to hear either one again.