“From Byrd to Bees” via Moondog and Tom Cats: the New London Chamber Ensemble in Hull

This, I mean the part in quotation marks, was the title of today’s concert held in the Middleton Hall by Hull Chamber Music Society. When the audience entered, two musicians were already standing at two distant corners of the auditorium, then two others entered through the front side doors, and the fifth came on the stage. They started a dancing march across the room, finally ending up all on stage, while performing a transcription of William Byrd’s Pavane and Galliard. Five excellent, playful, spirited wind players of the New London Chamber Ensemble, with this refreshing start into an unconventional evening, full of rarely played pieces, and overall an almost childish enjoyment in making beautiful or irritating, soothing or shocking sounds — as one of them reminded us, quoting John Cage at one point: “all sound is music”.

Yet, there was definitely planning and structure to the evening: after the Renaissance introitus, in the first half, we heard three 20th century American composers, the youngest (Stephen Montague) living in the UK. The title of his piece (Thule Ultima) refers to the farthermost limits of the Roman Empire. Yet the second half of the concert brought us to the three other borders or peripheries of Europe, south (Berio), north (Nielsen) and east (RIsky-Korsakov). Yes, the “bee” in the title referred to the unbeatable evergreen as finale.

Within the “Byrd – bee” framing, two more conventional wind quintet pieces, actually written for a wind quintet, provided ample evidence of the musicians mastery of characterisation, virtuosity, expressiveness. The second, Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, invoking the languor of a hot lazy midday, perhaps in a garden, was a joy for fans of his late Romantic style, especially touching were Melanie Ragge’s oboe solos. Before the piece, to my much pleasant surprise, she also recited, beautifully, Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop”, another reminiscence of a summer day.

The before last piece, Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet op 43 is relatively rarely heard in concerts but the ensemble has it as a key element in their repertoire and also recorded it. Especially interesting is the last movement, with a solemn chorale-like melody and more than a dozen variations, equally showcasing the character of the individual instruments and Nielsen’s inventive combination of the possibilities of contrasting, competing and concerting duos and trios among the five.

The most surprises and laughter were, however due to the remaining three gems of light spirited music. Moondog was a self-taught blind musician from Sasnak, i.e. Kansas, well known on the streets of New York City in the 40s and 50s, often near Carnegie Hall or the Lincoln Centre, where he befriended the likes of Benny Goodman, Philipp Glass and Leonard Bernstein, who all admired his minimalism. Glass, in fact [well, let’s have this checked first in his memoirs!], once claimed that he learned more from Moondog [born as Louis Thomas Hardin, died and buried in Munster, Germany], than from anoyone at Juillard.  Moodog’s music was much inspired by the noises of the streets of New York but in its simplicity it sometimes also reaches into the spiritual. A good example of this was his short piece, “Bird of Paradise“, a real gem or variation and repetitiveness and imitatio naturae, perhaps my favourite from the entire concert.

But wait, perhaps it was another one. We were reminded of Luciano Berio’s avantgarde and humour by his early, rather neo-classical sounding “Opus Number Zoo, children’s play for wind quintet” (1951, rev. 1970). It comprises four miniature movements – based on seemingly charming but potentially disturbing prose poems/fairy tales of the animal kingdom (text by Rhoda Levine, children’s book writer, opera director and choreographer). The stories, of the Fox eating the hen who notices too late that game is over, the Fawn lamenting the destruction of the world for no reason, the Old Mouse missing out on the party, and Omar and Bartholomew, the two macho Tomcats comparing and then losing their attributes of pride, are recited by one member of the quintet and accompanied, hilariously, sometimes tenderly or compassionately, by the tunes of the four others, and the roles change frequently, even mid-word. Some of the interpretations available online refer to Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, Prokofjev‘s Peter and the Wolf and Orwell’s Animal farm (after all, we are in 1951) as similar, though longer, compositions, yet one must listen very carefully to the texts and let the music shock you, to get the idea why.

The most unruly, perhaps even anarchic piece [ I haven’t checked the scores to see how much of what happened on stage is notated, although comparing various video recordings give you an idea that some of it is left for the musicians] was “Thule Ultima for woodwind quintet” (1999). Stephen Montague indeed took the wind instruments to the utmost limits of the possibilites of their sonoric possibilities – what we hear, until the very last tunes, are only the reed and brass mouthpieces, producing, to me at least wholly unexpectedly creeking, squeeking sounds. All along, the musicians were following a sort of choreography of a burlesque – it almost felt like watching an old silent movie of slapstick humour of gestures, while the musical accompaniment is produced by the actors themselves!

The Chamber Music series at Hull is a heroic enterprise  – it’s a small miracle that it is able to continue in this city. With most members and concertgoers in their 80s, and the Middleton Hall’s steep flights of stairs, even physical access difficult, not to mention generational and financial sustainability. Yet, this old fashioned genre of chamber music concerts is alive and well. Excellent musicians are coming to play, and as this concert showed, somewhat unexpectedly,  the enthusiasm of the ensemble was contagious. The music brought genuine joy and laughter on the faces of the audience, irrespective of age. Chamber music can be lyrical, meditative, but also energising or irreverently funny.

Value for money

About a month ago, at a final sale in a charity shop on Whitefriargate, I bought 5 books for £1. One of them is the memoir of Hull-born actor Tom Courtenay. Actually, it is a narrated collection of the letters his mother wrote him to London during his studies and the first few years of his career, between 1955 and 1962, the year of her premature death. Reading just a few pages at night before sleep or in the morning after waking up, gives an emotional boost, variably heartwarming or sad. Apart from the social atmosphere of the fishing and dock worker community on Hessle road and the working class in Hull more generally, glimpses at the trials and tribulations of a famous artist as a young man, the real treasures of the book are those clumsy but artful, funny, touching paragraphs by “Mam” which show the poetry of trivial everyday life events, ambitions never fulfilled and a hard-working life shadowed by illness and impending early death. Yet this excerpt shows the gentleness of the father-son relationship.20181026_135839

I shall return to the term in the title – it is worth serious discourse analysis how it has become so widespread in public language of the UK in recent decades. Some cases show the absurdity or frivolity of talking about value and money in one breath.

Vegetarian lasagne and Karl

20181024_134105One of those rare sunny autumn days when there is nothing better to do than go for an “adult lane swim” in the local swimming pool (although being overtaken by at least 30% speed difference by a man in his 70s only using his arms is a bit intimidating, or more positively, showing there is room for development), followed by an al fresco lunch at the wonderfully hippy, rather than hipster, Zoo café; and to grab the last portion of the daily special vegetarian lasagne, with mushrooms and spinach, in a rich sauce, crispy garlic toast and a colourful and totally healthy (except the mayonnaise) side salad. Accompanied by the handy volume of selected writings by Karl Polányi (Economy and Society – a title strongly suggesting Max Weber’s opus magnum). Followed by a mocha – a new habit which should not become an addiction