St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 24.10.2020 (MB)
Rebel: Les Élémens: ‘Le Chaos’
Samantha Fernando: Lost Things, for solo flute
Mozart: Flute Concerto in D major, KV 314/285d
Copland: Appalachian Spring
Let us not kid ourselves: there is absolutely nothing to recommend our historical moment. That is still more the case when it comes to music, for reasons no reader will need to see repeated. Yes, in some ways we may feel we appreciate it all the more, yet scarcity is no way to show appreciation, nor is throwing musicians’ lives on the scrapheap in order to funnel more cash to Dido Harding, Serco, and the horse racing ‘industry’. People are rightly angry, depressed, in despair—and dying. That is not something to celebrate with naïve, neo-Panglossian hopes for a better future. What music, when we can find it, when we can make it, can do is give us a little more hope for the present, a little relief from the hell that engulfs us.
It is chaos right now, of course, a different kind of chaos, man-made, from that which pertained prior to Creation. One could nevertheless make connections—and did—in an outstanding performance of Jean-Féry Rebel’s ‘Le Chaos’ to open the concert. Its extraordinary opening cluster, containing all seven notes of the D minor harmonic scale, hit home, but so, at least as importantly, did the six minutes or so of the piece’s progress, like Rameau on steroids, that unmistakeable ‘French Baroque’—however unsatisfactory the name—combination of texture and timbre ringing through the friendly acoustic. We may be all at sea, all in chaos even, but there was some comfort to be had from the Academy returning ‘home’ all these years later from its 1958 debut. So too was there in Michael Cox’s flute’s pastoral memories and, in the context of the concert as a whole, harbinger of music to come. The ASMF’s fabled polish was naturally present, but this was a performance of great commitment too, scales, one of our most basic musical building blocks, seemingly created anew in the struggle of ‘elements’—earth, water, air, and fire—to assume their place in a ‘natural order’ which, however constructed, we could yet momentarily believe in. Dance, if only imaginary, played its role, courtly yet modern, as much as notes ‘themselves’, for this was a dramatic, even conceptual, narrative that unfolded before our eyes and ears.
Cox returned as soloist for the next two pieces. First was Samantha Fernando’s Lost Things, derived from her music-theatre work The Journey Between Us. Perhaps inevitably in this concert context, the solo instrument emerged as if from French tradition, Debussy above all, yet in no sense sounded hidebound by it. Exploratory, idiomatic, leaving one curious to hear more, this was a piece that drew one in to listen, to appreciate the importance of every note: not just its pitch, but the nature of its sounding, and its relationship to others. Again, the sense of narrative was readily apparent: ‘lost things’, doubtless, yet much was found too.
In Mozart’s D major Flute Concerto, we heard cultivated, finely articulated orchestral playing from the outset, the soloist responding and developing in kind, his tone to die for, phrasing effortlessly expressive. Narrative here was above all harmonic, likewise in a slightly different sense in the kaleidoscopic cadenza. From that fundamental narrative, finely honed detail emerged to beguile us in the slow movement. A garden of tonal delights that, by Mozart’s later standards, is straightforward to interpret, whether as performer as listener—this is not Così fan tutte—it nonetheless enticed, on the cusp of recollections of a summer that never was (this of all years) and autumnal bite. Youthful high spirits and sheer beauty of sound were almost too much to bear in the finale. It spoke, or rather sang, of another world, a world we fear we shall neither see nor hear again. Still, better to have experienced its loveliness than not; such relief can and does help.
Last on the programme came a return to dance music: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, in its original, chamber version for thirteen instruments. As ever, the ensemble under Tomo Keller’s direction was second to none. Thinned textures—at least from the standpoint of general experience—fascinated, not least in the clarification of counterpoint at dawn. There was a heightened sense, I think, of Stravinskian influence in the following section: to my ears, all to the better, though that is really a matter of taste. Much of what comes thereafter is a bit folksy and soft-centred for me, but that is no comment on the performance itself, which clearly delighted many. Moreover, given the intent to send a message to the Academy’s American friends, scheduled at this time of year to hear the ensemble on tour, there was an undeniable message to be heard and felt. Many of us, after all, feel the loss of being cut off from loved ones, be they in Trump-land, currently more inaccessible to us than North Korea, or elsewhere, and a need to communicate with them in forms both old and new. Now, more than ever, music’s therapeutic benefits should be recognised whenever and wherever we can.