Concert Review

David Starobin (guitars) with George Crumb (percussion) Wigmore Hall 13 December
Tom Kerstens (guitars) Purcell Room 14 December
History of the Jazz Trumpet (Park Lane Group) Queen Elizabeth Hall 14 December
Piano Circus (BMIC 'Cutting Edge' series) The Warehouse, SE1 16 December

Several days in the life of an eclectic critic! (A review of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt's Wigmore Hall recital on 15 December is already posted separately.)

David Starobin from New York is a consummate artist, with a unique repertoire and a very pleasing manner. His short first half was devoted to Giuliani waltzes and Regondi studies played on a copy of a small Austrian guitar of the early 19th Century. This had an intimate, confiding tone quality, and is more comfortable for encompassing passage work than the larger, brighter toned modern guitar, as Starobin had explained on Radio 3 (no explanation in the Wigmore Hall programme, though). Both those composers were Italian ex-patriates, Giulani (1781-1829) working in Vienna (his string of waltzes were rather like Schubert's many sets of dances for piano) and Regondi (1822-72) in London. They were delightful, yet another demonstration that, with the appropriate instrument and proper scale, music which might be dismissed as trivial can provide real delight.

The second half of David Starobin's recital, on modern Spanish guitar, was of contemporary pieces all having UK or world premieres, mostly commissioned by and composed for Starobin. There was an Arabesque by Melinda Wagner (Pulitzer prize-winner) and a tight little piece by Carter, Shard (1997), which Starobin likened to Pollock's action painting. Poul Ruders supplied a substantial Chaconne. The English contributors were Colin Matthews, Robert Saxton and Simon Bainbridge. Saxton was present to hear his tiny Miniature dance for a Marionette Rabbi, and Simon Bainbridge to share the appreciation for his Dance for Moon Animals (after Ted Hughes). Finally Mundus Canis, four ingenious pieces by George Crumb composed as portraits of family dogs. George Crumb contributed with precision and aplomb on a portable kit of percussion instruments, including maracas and a small gong lowered into a bucket of water. This unusual duo worked well, and the pieces could stand by themselves and enjoy a good performing life. I do wonder, however, if Crumb might have been better advised to keep the source of the inspiration as his own secret? The requirement for the percussionist to call out 'Yoda' and say 'bad dog' in the last one was something of a turn-off.

This was a fine recital, but there was only a rudimentary programme sheet, lacking information about the composers, not all of them well known, and telling us nothing about David Starobin's special instrument and his researches into rare nineteenth century repertoire. David Starobin has an impressive discography of contemporary guitar music with Bridge Records, including 18 Dances (BCD 9084) and music by George Crumb (BCD 9028).[see Crumb web-site]

The possibility to hear another contemporary guitar recital the following day was too good to pass up, but Tom Kerstens' credentials proved better than his playing, which was tentative and poorly projected. He played baroque and modern instruments, but changed his advertised programme drastically without explanation, watering down the contemporary element. He had difficulty with tuning, and told us a joke about an expert who gave a long lesson on tuning and subsequently played a recital out of tune!

Not a happy event, but I was rescued during the interval in the foyer by John Woolf (Director of the Park Lane Group - their Young Artists series in January will be reviewed by S&H) who invited me into their concert in progress next door. With four leading British trumpeters and four more supporting musicians recalling the greats of yesteryear, this was altogether more inspiriting, four veteran jazzmen co-operating good naturedly, and vying with each other's inspired improvisations which reached dizzy heights. Particular credit to the management of the discreet sound enhancement, which was just right. No distortion; the sound came directly to the audience from the musicians, not out of loud-speakers to the sides, as is too often the case.

There was a moving Blues composed in memory of Kenny Baker, who was to have participated, but had died the previous week. Of the four venerable gentlemen trumpeters in business suits, Henry Lowther appeared to be particularly revered. He played a mellow flugel-horn (I think) as well as trumpet, and another of the quartet did an extravagant vocal bebop act, which delighted the large audience. A heart-warming finish to an evening which started badly.

The six young pianists of Piano Circus brought to a close BMIC's Cutting Edge series of concerts at their new venue, The Warehouse in Theed Street. This is a convenient location by Waterloo, and attracted good audiences. Further concerts there are to be welcomed.

Piano Circus has given me great pleasure in the past, in concert and on CD. I have even participated in a workshop of theirs at Huddersfield, in which we played Terry Riley's In C (which started the whole thing) on multiple pianos. They have specialised in American minimalist music and that of younger British composers working in broadly related styles. For larger events they have appeared in collaboration with Steinways, playing six grand pianos in a circle, marvellous to See and Hear in the right music.

For the BMIC they brought six Roland synthesiser-pianos with a lot of electric paraphernalia, and deafened us with crudely amplified noise, lacking even a semblance of piano tone, and not tapping into the variety of tone colours so readily available on synthesisers and demonstrated in their CDs. The music offered required a lot of tricky counting, but seraphic smiles were worn to assure us we were all having a good time.

The first part of Piano Circus's programme included three commissions funded by the Arts Council and London Arts Board. Huw Warren's Riot of relentless, colliding rhythms might have been interesting (and even possibly enjoyable) in a better-focused performance. Niki Yeoh's Six as 1 is unified by 'melodies that run throughout' - yes, indeed! Geoffrey King-Gomez's Movements came with a long note alluding to music for the virginals and by Tchaikowsky, Chopin, Barry Manilow, and to Bond's Goldfinger. Very complicated, but all of that eluded us because the composers' texts, in tiny print (and on dark blue paper ) were unreadable in the darkened hall with green lights.

Torches, magnifying glasses and ear-muffs could usefully be supplied for Piano Circus's future concerts with 'specially designed lighting - - and amplification' - and by other organizations likely to pursue similar philosophies to bring in younger punters during the next decade.

The Piano Circus pianists themselves supplied several items. Kate Heath was assisted in the onerous task of composing her Red. A piece of manuscript paper was passed around, each player adding a chord. The resultant six chords were repeated for four bars each, and each pianist was allocated a drumming rhythm. There, now you know how to compose 'cutting edge' music for the next millennium.

Another of Piano Circus's pianist-composers is Max Richter, whose Mazusu Dream is an elaborated 'township jive', offered with a lengthy environmental-political programme note. Numbingly tedious at The Warehouse, it sounds far more acceptable on Piano Circus's latest CD of music (and everything else) by Richter, recorded at their own studio in Hackney (pianocircus pcd 002). No timings are provided, but purchasers should be warned that the three pieces total no more than 22 minutes.

Try to hear Piano Circus live playing six Steinways sometime. Meanwhile, their Argo CDs are worth looking out for: [Argo 430 380-2 ZH (Reich & Riley), 436 100-2 (Fitkin), 440 294-2 (Reich, Volans & Lang etc)]

Peter Grahame Woolf

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