Any evening called “Music at Night,” presented by a leading music trust and held at a posh private school in the rolling hills of rural Kent sounds like a very sophisticated and dignified affair.
And how better to begin an evening of music with emerging young artists, than with a rousing performance of Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” complete with ridiculous 80’s clothes, stage business and over-the-top guitar solo. Of course, many instrumentalists also sing, so it was entirely appropriate that we would be treated to some a cappella vocal stylings, in this case a “female barbershop quartet.” Well, how could I not love close harmony singing, and what conductor would not appreciate being the dedicatee of an entirely sight-read version of “Hey Big Spender?” Of course, “female” in this case turned out to be a very broadly interpreted term, as the group consisted of only one girl, and three guys singing outrageously in falsetto, and it was they who made all the suggestive gestures. Well, I’ve learned to keep my expectations low in life…. It helps you avoid a lot of disappointment.
We finally got to the proper classical music with some solo piano, in this case one of the Vingt Regards of Messiaen. You’ve got to love it when young musicians start discovering the wacky stuff beyond the standard curriculum, and I’m particularly fond of this piece. We also had the first movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, another work I love. I had my afternoon coffee while listening to them rehearse on the patio overlooking the garden and the lake- very civilized. Classical music was also well represented by the finale of the Mendelssohn Octet, played by a group called “Kenny’s Babes.” Gotta say, I love the name, even if it has nothing to do with this Kenny.
Other highlights included some Celtic fiddling. (As some of you will know, fiddling is the true religion of Eastern Oregon, and my second violin section in the OES has any number of world and national champion fiddlers. It used to bother me that they didn’t read well, but once you realize they can memorize the second violin part to a Mahler symphony on two hearings, you stop worrying about it.) We also had a big band for the grand finale.
The pressures of music’s “real world” can cause one’s focus to narrow to the point of myopia all too often. It’s refreshing to see talented people who feel free to play more than one instrument or more than one kind of music, instead of spending all their waking hours killing themselves on one tiny corner of the repertoire for their main instrument. The orchestra’s bass trombonist was the very solid drummer for the rock band, the bass player was a cellist, lead singer a violinist and their guitarist (doing a very good Yngwie Malmsteen impersonation) was a percussionist in the week. The second trombonist in the orchestra played alto sax in the big band and on a solo piece, and fiddle in the Celtic group. One of the flautists was the busy accompanist for most of the acts, and arranged a very “interesting” medley that included “I Will Survive,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Hotel California,” and about five other titles, all sung to the same chord progression. Of course, the big band featured the orchestra’s trumpet section intact, but also a sax section made up of flautists, violinists, trombonists and so on. The pianist for the Messiaen played bass in the orchestra.
Of course, the high point of the evening had to be “the dance.” All I can say about this is that it was pure genius, and that I know some of you in the orchestra are reading this and have it on video. I beg you- post it on YouTube and I’ll add it here.
Great party, too.
If the BBC is serious about showing that classical music is for young people and all people, they should stop hiring annoying pseudo-hipster hosts for the Proms, and instead do a documentary on one of these courses. I think the world would be quite shocked to find that not only are the students more talented than the people on Fame Academy and X Factor (no surprise, there), they’re way hipper (not just classical hip, but hip hip), dress better and can dance, both onstage and socially. Then show them playing the hell out of a Rachmaninov symphony and you’ve got the stuff of great television. Sometimes orchestras try to refresh their image by publishing casual pictures of the musicians, and listing all their hipster interests, like mountain biking and Radiohead. All well and good, but laundry lists don’t make impressions, personality does. If nothing else, this week has reminded me that there are some big personalities out there, and it seems like that is a strength we can build on in trying to reclaim music’s place in society.