Sunday, 31 October 2010

'Living Room in London' - in Exeter

'Living Room in London':
Violinists, Tom Norris and Ellie Fagg
Hang-Player, Manu Delago
'Cellist, Gregor Riddell
On Saturday evening Sallie Buck of 'Friends of Buburi' brought the extremely talented chamber ensemble 'Living Room in London' to St Matthew's Church in Exeter for a benefit concert.
Many thanks to Gill and Tina for giving us the information about the concert on their 'Mighty Book' programme this Tuesday.  (As always the Mighty Book took over from the Classical Journey on the last Tuesday of the month.)
The Friends of Buburi fund a malaria clinic in Kenya, providing four nurses, diagnostic equipment and medicines.  Proceeds from Saturday's concert (and CD sales) will go to support this work.
But who are 'Living Room in London'?  The story begins in Austria where Clarinetist/Saxophonist, Christophe Pepe Auer joined forces with Manu Delago, master of the recently invented Swiss instrument, the 'Hang'.  Bernese Swiss for 'hand', the name refers to a case hardened and tuned steel pan invented by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Berne in 2000.  The instruments are very hard to obtain as they must be hand-made to order, and orders are given priority according to the inventors' own criteria!  There is even concern that production may have stopped completely.  The hang is extemely difficult to play.  (I tried a few experimental taps and produced absolutely no sound at all.)
Manu has not only become the world's greatest virtuoso hang player, he has also introduced many of his own original compositions the the repertoire.  With Christophe Pepe Auer providing extraordinary Saxphone and Clarinet playing, the duo have been touring the world as 'The Living Room'.  The name reflects the intimate concerts they like to give on their instruments.
The London element is provided by three highly skilled musicians whose professional work include playing with the London Symphony Orchestra.  Recently married couple Ellie Fagg and Tom Norris play violin with equal virtuosity and passion while Gregor Riddell is a remarkable 'cellist of quite breathtaking skill.
Unfortunately, Pepe had to be in his home town of Vienna this weekend and was not able to join us, but the remaining four players managed magnificently in his absence.
Ellie and Tom strode purposefully onto the stage and launched immediately into the wonderful seventeenth century baroque Violin Sonata for Two Violins by Jean-Marie Leclair the elder.  The opening vivace was just that - fun, fun, fun.  Each player providing continuo for the other's melody before rushing in with their own version of the same tune.  The duet sections were quite incredible.  As is sadly often the case, the audience did not know that there were three movements and showed their appreciation by applauding the opening movement heartily.  This was all right, as Ellie and Tom naturally paused between the first and second movements.  However, the final prestissimo follows hard on the heels of the lento middle movement, and the eager applause of the audience in between the two rather spoiled Tom's energetic opening note.  Despite that small hiccup nothing else marred the performance.  In contrast to the opening movement the lento was silky smooth throughout - a romantic dream of a piece.  The last movement brought back the urgent echo and re-echo between the two players, but now the element of pizzicato was introduced making this even more fun than the first movement.  Leclair's employer's certainly got their money's worth!  And did I mention that the playing was to an amazing standard that is always a joy to behold - full of life and passion.
Ellie was very forgiving about our overenthusiastic applause and made sure we knew what was coming next. From the late seventeenth century we moved directly to the late nineteenth.  Josef Suk's Duo for two violins was gentle, lilting and melancholy.  Then we were in Russia between the wars.  Two movements from Sergei Prokofiev's 1932 masterpiece 'Sonata for two violins'.  The andante cantabile was incredibly skilled with both players sliding between notes rather than using different fingers.  How many hours practice must that need?  The Allegro con brio was incredibly fierce, almost a race between the two players with sparkling pizzicato sections.  The audience (having waited their turn this time) erupted in delighted applause at the final climactic notes.
Ellie and Tom had been standing throughout the performance so far, putting the energy of their whole bodies into the playing.  Now they sat, Ellie on the left, Tom on the right and, taking up the seat in the middle, was an unassuming young man called Gregor Riddell with his 'cello.  Ellie explained that pieces for two violins and a 'cello are quite rare and any pieces we could suggest would be very welcome (contact  Their choice, however, was inspired.  More Russian music, this time from the St Petersburg nobleman Alexander Borodin.  A skilled doctor and professor of chemistry, Borodin was also a prominent member of Mily Balakirev's 'Mighty Handful' which included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Modest Mussorgsky.  His 'Trio Sonata' is an arrangement of a traditional Russian folk song with six variations, all fiendishly complicated.  Ellie, now confined to a chair, swung from side to side in her seat with the incredible energy and enthusiasm she put into the playing.  Gregor, quite equal to the task, responded in kind and performed wildly fast and complex sections on his 'cello, in response to the violins, without turning a hair.  Once again we were treated to lively pizzicato sections, now on the 'cello as well - a really gorgeous sound!  The first half ended to rapturous applause.
In the intermission, wine was served to the audience - an audience which included Mowenna Del Mar and family.  Morwenna was at St Margaret's Church in Topsham on Wednesday, 30th October, to play her 'cello at the Devon Oxford and Cambridge Societies' Annual Concert.  (See previous posts).  Gregor, like Morwenna, is a Cambridge graduate and the two have known each other from their early teenage years when they both travelled to London each weekend to the Junior Royal College of Music.  Gregor, who is also a pianist, has more recently performed with Morwenna in a piano trio.
During the interval several odd-shaped instruments were placed on chairs on the stage.  These were clearly the 'hanghang' we had heard about.  They looked oddly simple - more like a wok with a lid on than anything else - but clearly carefully sculpted with a series of depressions hammered into the surface, which seemed to have been hardened and oil-blacked in some way.  An experimental tap or two produced absolutely no sound at all, so it was not clear how these instruments would be used.
As the audience returned to their seats Manu Delago came onto the stage and, totally focussed, sat with one  hang on his lap and one to either side.  He sat deep in concentration for several minutes before beginning his first piece by drawing a few notes from the hang with his finger, much as we might make a wine-glass 'sing'.  He was able to produce different notes from different parts of the hang.  By tapping and flexing the steel 'carapace' of the hang he added in a series of microtonal notes.  Subtly introducing more and more sounds, and bringing in each hang in turn, Manu built up his enchantingly beautiful opening piece which was called 'Another Change'.  If I heard Ellie's introduction correctly earlier on, the title was inspired by the change in programme (because Pepe couldn't be with us) and the composition was completed on the way to Exeter on the train!  The piece was, nevertheless, fully developed and utterly entrancing.  The skill involved was clearly equal to that required for any classical instrument.  And Manu is clearly very skilled.  After a brief explanation of the history of the hang, Manu treated us to his now world-famous composition 'Mono Desire' (available on the internet and receiving millions of plays).  Gregor stood in for Pepe, who would normally play bass saxophone, playing the 'cello arrangement with great skill.
There is a slight metallic slapping sound involved in hang playing, which is reminiscent of a steel band, but behind that is an exquisite harmonic sound which is quite unique.  I was reminded of Isaac Asimov's short story 'The Singing Bell'. In it, a lunar prospector Albert Cornwell is murdered by his business associate Louis Peyton in order that Peyton might obtain Cornwell's cache of priceless extraterrestrial geodes. These 'singing bells', through there unique structure, could be made to produce a haunting and ethereal sound - so irresistible that a person might commit murder to obtain them.  That may be going a little far, but I think you get the idea.  The hang really is a unique and special instrument, and needs to be heard live to really appreciate the sound.  Manu Delago, by all accounts, is the world's primary exponent of this remarkable new instrument.
Manu then welcomed the other players onto the stage for a performance of another of his own compositions, 'Don't Forget'.  Although Manu plays without sheet music, and may appear to be improvising at times, his compositions are fully scored and All three performers were playing from the printed page.  This was a really wonderful combination of sounds.  Manu increased his volume to be heard alongside the other instruments and introduced a 'thump and slide' technique for yet another new sound.  The piece ended with a series of gently stroked tones on the hang - and tumultuous applause from the now loving audience.
Before we knew what was happening, the quartet had launched into an oddly familiar theme - Irish perhaps? The hang was now clearly treated as a regular chamber instrument as the beautiful tune unfolded. And then Tom put down his violin and began to sing!  The familiar nonsense poem from 1867 by Edward Lear, 'The Owl and the Pussycat' had been set to music (by Tom himself).  Each verse was in a slightly different style and interspersed with inspired instrumental parts for the other players - including Tom himself on the violin.  We were all by now quite familiar with Tom's skill on the violin (not mentioning the skill of the other players) but the addition of his beautiful singing voice was an amazing revelation.  Not only sweet and melodic, but wonderfully comic as well.
You may wonder what could possibly finish a fantastic concert like that.  For a final piece the group really excelled themselves!  Everyone loves Mozart's 'Rondo alla Turca' of course.  It excites and dazzles on any instrument.  (I have never forgotten Tristan Fry's Vibraphone arrangement from 1980 with 'Sky 2'.)  Now we were going to hear something new and unique, the Rondo arranged for string trio and hang!  The familiar theme really rang out on the hang, while the other players had clearly introduced some incredible variations of their own.  Long pizzicato sections on violin and 'cello which were pure fun, and Gregor amazing us all with yet another specialist technique - 'Ricochet'!  Rather than stroke the strings with his bow, he bounced it across all four strings with manic energy.  Most other people trying this would just make a racket, but not Gregor!  Almost incredibly, the music of Mozart continued to pour from the battered strings.  The two violinists were equally impassioned, Ellie grinning and winking at the audience as she rocked in her seat and flew into each new elaboration.  As the final notes crashed out the audience leapt to their feet to give a passionate and heartfelt standing ovation to this incredibly talented band of musicians.  We are lucky to have so much great music to enjoy here in Devon, but this concert was really special!
After the performance there was a rush to buy CDs of the performers (proceeds from sales also going to the 'Friends of Buburi' charity in Kenya).  The very last 'limited edition' CD of 'Living Room in London' including the amazing 'Rondo A La Turk' went to George Eamer who made a special trip from Exmouth to see the concert.  He has very generously offered to try to get his copy to the Phonic FM studio for us to listen to on 'Classical Journey' - after he's had a chance to enjoy it himself, of course!  Also Tom Norris will be striving to find another copy for us to have here at the station.
Not only great musicians, but also delightfully friendly, the group members stayed after the concert to chat with audience members and answer questions - especially about the ever-intriguing 'hang'.  Considering their international reputation and other professional commitments it is difficult to find words to express our immense gratitude to these amazing performers for taking the time to come all the way to Exeter, and play for us absolutely free of charge.  The entire entrance fee from each person in the audience went straight to 'Friends of Buburi', as did the profits from CD sales.  Deepest gratitude to all four players.  And thanks also to Sally Buck, and everyone else who helped to organise this special benefit concert and make it such a success.

For more information about 'Friends of Buburi' and their work click here.

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