Concert Review

John Downey Festival St John's Smith Square 30 November 1999
John Downey Festival: The Edge of Space; Orchestral Modules Five Double-Bass Concerto Gary Karr, double-bass; Philarmonia Orchestra Geoffrey Simon, conductorBarbican Hall Monday 30 November 1999

John Downey Festival St John's Smith Square 30 November 1999

The chamber music concert at St John's Smith Square in the current John Downey Festival showed the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's professor of composition to be no dry academic. Some 15 performers took part , including the composer himself as conductor of one of the pieces. The more you hear of Downey, the more treasures he reveals.

His 1995 sonata for flute and guitar Rough Road opened the programme. Flautist Marie Sander had a hollow, aggressive edge which drove the earthy logic of her argument to an impassioned climax. Guitarist Kevin Gallagher coloured her diatribe with a sympathetic touch.

The Adagio Lyrico for two pianos was a powerfully lyrical piece written in memory of the composer's dead brother. The pianists became siblings on the stage. This was the most moving piece in the concert. James Tocco and Jeffrey Petersen sparred with, shadowed, teased and matched each other with intuitive, familial understanding.

The impressive violinist Erin Adridge played the irresistibly danceable Irish Sonata with great power although it was a pity she had not the confidence to perform it from memory. The awkward page-turns interrupted the flow. Still the work is one of Downer's most immediately gripping and has a very patchable champion in Aldridge.

The soprano Erie Mills sang three songs with lyrics by John Downey's Russian-born wife Irusha. They wanted a lighter touch than Mills sometimes gave them but their unembarrassed expression of love moved the listeners.

Mrs Downey recited the poem she had written for the cantata A Dolphin before Prof. Downey conducted it. The British tenor Nigel Robson enjoyed the hissing words, understated the jazz section and pulled off the John Cage effects with aplomb. It is easy to look a nerd when clucking like a Rhode Island Red on stage but Robson's smiling forthrightness dispelled pretension.

No piece was more beautiful than Downey's String Quartet No2 as performed by the excellent all-Russian, all female Veronika Quartet. Searing silver chords marked the opening. The five movements flowed one to the next without a break, and without needing one. This was wonderful seamless writing, which carried the listeners on a raft of darkly lyrical ideas. Bells of many kinds chimed in the weft. Haunting memories were stirred. This work, more than any other, ought to make Downey's name.

The concert played itself out with two solo piano works, Memories and Pyramids, performed by James Tocco. The first was full of murky, subdued reminiscences, the second with hell-for-leather fortissimo contortions, which challenged the page-turner but elicited a tumultuous reception from the audience.

At the halfway stage, the John Downey Festival has been a success in terms of programming and performance, but a miscalculation in its appeal to audiences. Numbers were down. The last two days are devoted to symposia and chamber recitals at Trinity College of Music, London. One suspects a certain schizophrenia. Was the festival aiming at academic study or straight entertainment? Obviously it was trying to do both, but a greater focus on one of those two goals might have improved the chances of succeeding at either.

Rick Jones

John Downey Festival: The Edge of Space; Orchestral Modules Five Double-Bass Concerto Gary Karr, double-bass; Philarmonia Orchestra Geoffrey Simon, conductor Barbican Hall Monday 30 November 1999

Bassoonists have good reason to remember John Downey. It was The Edge of Space that gave that much-maligned instrument a welcome boost when Robert Thompson's recording appeared back in 1980 [Chandos CHAN9278]. Theconductor, Geoffrey Simon, a Downey champion of long-standing, has beencentral to this week-long festival, featuring performances at St John's Smith Square [see Rick Jones's review above] and Trinity College. The Barbican concert provided a generous perspective on Downey's work for orchestra.

A pupil of Nadia Boulanger in the 1950s, and a well-respected professor of composition at the University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the greater part of three decades, Downey's academic standing is impeccable. Yet there's a formal freedom and spontaneity of gesture that never sounds the product of academe. The Edge of Space integrates the soloist in a freely developing form, whose opportunities for 'meaningful' virtuosity, gratefully taken up by Thomson, and timbral variety - the ethereal music for water-filled glasses a judicious touch - compensate for the lack of cohesion overall.

Elsewhere, however, the limitations in pacing and momentum were more telling. The Orchestral Modules Five (1972), a substantial set playing for almost 50 minutes, were split, 3 to 2, either side of the interval. Soundwise, there's a good deal to hold the interest, Downey bringing Dutilleux to mind in the range and sophistication of his sonic palette. What he lacks is the French composer's knack of conferring discipline through freedom; forms that evolve with an inevitability at the level of their deep structure.

Save for the incisive fugato music of Module 2's outer sections and the pungent brevity of Module 3, these pieces ploughed a meandering course towards climaxes whose impact, however visceral, seldom felt 'achieved'. The Double-Bass Concerto (1987) featured the inimitable musicianship of Gary Karr, very much the 'Rostropovich' of the double-bass fraternity. An ambitious, four movements-in-one piece of half-an-hour's duration, it promised much but, at the level of (hopefully) attentive listening, delivered disappointingly little. The bizarre jazzy episode some 12 minutes in proved unable to offset the earnest but plodding nature of the music around it, with only the final section generating some much-needing rhythmic intensity. Karr gave his all [his recording is on Cala CACD1003]; a pity then that the music left such an anonymous impression.

What was impressive was the thoroughness of preparation both of the orchestra and of the performance 'infrastructure'. In particular, the quality of the programme presentation and attendant literature demonstrated The University of Milwaukee's recognition of Downey's key role in its musical and civic life. That those 'in the know' were the large majority of the stalls-only audience suggested, perhaps, that this level of organization had failed to reach even a nominal wider audience. A pity.

Richard Whitehouse

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