Review of Clarinet Dreams 24th August 2016 From Oxford’s Daily Info

An Evening of Clarinet Elegance
Having a son who once played the clarinet, I was interested to go to a concert featuring this much underrated instrument. It turned out to be a wonderful and varied evening of music.

Lucy Downer is such a good clarinettist that she has pieces written for her (see below). Jocelyn Freeman on the piano was in sparkling form – her energy and vitality shone through every piece.

The programme started with the Brahms Sonata for Clarinet (or viola) and piano no. 2 in E flat. Listening to the melodic interplay of clarinet and piano it is hard to imagine it would be so beautiful if the clarinet were to be replaced by a viola: certainly in the hands of Lucy Downer and Jocelyn Freeman, the sonata was a lyrical joy. Brahms came out of retirement to write this piece for Richard Muhlfeld, whom he much admired, and this comes through in the music.

This was followed by two short pieces, the first written especially for Lucy by the composer Nick Planas after he heard her play a few years ago. To quote the composer himself: ‘Having seen Lucy performing on the bass clarinet, I was inspired to write this short piece. My intention with this Spanish rhapsody was to create a piece which would offer some technical challenges for the player, whilst providing the opportunity for great tonal variety.’ Nick is much influenced by Spanish music, perhaps partly because of his Spanish roots. This piece is written for the bass clarinet and it certainly shows off the full range of this unusual instrument, from the lowest notes in the ‘slow’ part to the higher faster notes in the ‘fandango’. It is very modern, but it still sounds like a Spanish dance. Lovely, too, that the composer was in the audience to hear her perform his composition.

Next on the menu was Iwan Muller’s Fantasia for clarinet and piano based on a famous aria from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Iwan Muller was himself a virtuoso clarinettist apparently and he developed the instrument itself as well as composing for it. If you know the aria, it is easily recognisable but then Muller takes the theme and develops it, at the same time showing off the melodic range of the instrument.

Last but certainly not least, Mozart’s Trio for clarinet, viola and piano in E flat with Edmund Jones joining the others on the viola. In Mozart’s time, the clarinet was not widely played and this was the first piece written for clarinet and viola together. Mozart wrote it for one of his best piano pupils, with a friend on the clarinet and himself on the viola and the fun and joy of the piece are quite apparent. It is a piece to play with friends.

The Oxford Proms continue on Saturday with Viva Virtuoso: if this concert was anything to go by, that will be another wonderful evening of music. Kathryn (DI Reviewer), 25/08/16

Review of Concerto Classics on 20th August 2016 from Andrew Bell for the Oxford Daily Info.

Shattering the chandeliers

When the Sheldonian’s full it buzzes like an upturned beehive, but when half empty it feels a little desolate; and there was a bit of an end-of-summer feel to the place on a wet and blustery Saturday evening, despite the well-balanced programme on offer from Oxford Proms. Quite how this concert and its companions in this short season qualify as “proms” escapes me since there was no provision for standing audience or groundlings. That may, however, be a blessing since we read that a feature of the proms in Sir Henry Wood’s day was licence for promenaders to smoke, eat and drink during a performance.
We got off to a lively start with Vivaldi’s brief Concerto in C major for 2 Trumpets and Strings. This staple of the baroque repertoire, representative of a vast library of concertos grosso, is a happy effort, frankly intended for entertainment. It stands or falls on the ability of its twin soloists to dovetail their parts, a difficult task given that the orchestra had but one rehearsal beforehand. After a slightly hesitant start, Howard Rowntree and Stephen Cutting picked up the pace and did their best to shatter the crystal chandeliers (had there been any to shatter).
In contrast, Leamington Spa composer Tim Perkins’ Dithyramb for Clarinet, Viola, Strings and Percussion was a premiere. For those who missed out at school on Ancient Greek, a dithyramb was a wild choral hymn, especially one dedicated to Dionysus the god of sex and wine. Mr Perkins told me he was thinking more of the modern, looser definition of a short lyrical composition, and this is what we got, a piece of strong rhythm, alternately swelling and subsiding until interrupted by crashing drums. I was put in mind of the music of contemporary Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu, especially his Symphony No. 1. Enjoyable stuff from Mr Perkins.
The evening’s major works were naturally the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, the last instrumental work Mozart completed before his final illness, and Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto. Each received a strong interpretation from its soloist. Clarinettist Lucy Downer, who also featured all evening in the orchestra, a fine feat of stamina, constantly and smoothly switched between upper and lower register and back again. The concerto radiates joyful ease in the outer movements, and a kind of quivering peace in the great adagio. Ms Downer began this in slow waltz tempo, then picked up speed as she went along, demonstrating fine legato and impeccable breath-control. This was the highlight of the evening for my neighbour Song Pei Fen from Penang Island, Malaysia via Brookes University.
Finally, the Emperor Concerto, with Japanese soloist Mami Shikimori. Those of us who were at the Sheldonian for Sir Andras Schiff’s interpretation on 16th June very likely had that night still fizzing in their memory lobes like a Guy Fawkes sparkler. Yet gratifyingly Ms Shikimori lost nothing in the comparison.
Elegant in a black jacket and long turquoise dress, she made her mark in the opening bars, letting loose a flood of sound that brought the orchestra instantly to heel before releasing it for its exposition. Throughout one sensed the pulses of energy she was giving out to conductor Catherine Underwood, hitherto during the programme quite self-effacing. In the second half of the allegro she let loose aggressive arpeggios like hammer blows, hands in unison for maximum volume. In the slow movement I wondered whether the tempo was a little quick before remembering it is marked as adagio un poco mosso (slow but moving onwards). The seamless transition to the final rondo was followed by that beautifully still moment just before the final chords.
Afterwards Ms Shikimori amid clamorous applause took her repeated bows in the long, deep Japanese fashion.

Andrew Bell (DI Reviewer), 22/08/16




Review of Oxford Prom’s concert on 20th August 2013 – Oxford Proms Orchestra with Michael Collins – clarinet. Conductor John Traill.

Oxford is a city full of music and the Oxford Proms (brainchild of violinist Edmund Jones) are a welcome addition to the summer scene. A series of chamber music is framed by orchestral concerts in Christopher Wren’s spectacular university venue. Jones’ purpose is to provide work for local professional musicians – not just freelancers from London – and this band is very impressive with tight ensemble, impeccable intonation, great string tone and fine wind solos.
Mozart’s opera seria “La Clemenza di Tito” has for its overture something of a trifle. This was despatched in crisp style by conductor John Traill. The consensus among scholars and players is that the concerto Mozart wrote for the clarinet was intended for the longer and lower Basset clarinet, and this certainly makes sense of the arpeggio figuration. Soloist Michael Collins was revelatory – effervescent as champagne and compelling in the beauty of tone. In the Adagio, Traill supported well, with the softest of string accompaniment, seeming to silence even the occasional evening reveller in Broad Street. If the tempo sometimes relaxed in the finale, Collins always recovered it brilliantly with exciting, physical playing.
In Britten’s centenary year, we didn’t get BB but Arvo Part’s “Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten” for strings and a solitary bell. Despite a rather indistinct start, this grew in strength, the players sustaining strongly their final fortissisimo. Traill is the most meticulous of conductors, and his control of the slow crescendo and hypnotic pulse was first rate.
In Haydn’s “London” Symphony Number 104, he coaxed some finely shaped lines from his wind players in an unfashionably slow Andante and maintained the architecture by retaining all of the composer’s repeats. The players were at their best when Traill’s enjoyment was evident, and the finale was sparkling.
Tribune Magazine September 2013. Reviewer Cary Gee

Review of “Bach – The Chaconne Code” Edmund Jones, violin – Ning Pookhaothong, piano

Described as something of a holy grail for violinists and “impossible” to realise, Bach’s ‘Ciaconna’ from hisPartita in D Minor is a deeply intriguing piece, and a daunting prospect for the instrumentalist. Indeed, tonight’s soloist provided the above descriptions before tackling it. Edmund Jones’ insights into the composition, history and technicality of the ‘Ciaccona’ were enlightening and gave a route in for those not well versed in Baroque repertoire.
This is an atypical piece for Baroque, and also probably not what comes to mind when you think of Bach – daintiness, regular machine-like rhythms and oft-changing harmony aren’t on the menu tonight. What Jones launched into was a musical journey whose dimensions and intensity would sound more at home in the Romantic mid-19thcentury. Big chords were attacked with relish, unresolved dissonances were left to reverberate around St Michael’s Church. He didn’t milk it though, and a piece which can run to 18 minutes was left at a relatively trim 15!
Having brought us through the many iterations of the unifying harmonic theme, Jones swept into the close of the piece with horse-hair hanging loose off his bow, and presumably sweat on his brow. His manner contrasted the sturm und drang though, a warm host as well as very capable musician. Unusually but illuminatingly, what followed was a performance of Busoni’s piano transcription of the same piece. Ning Pookhaothong realised it with some muscle and delicacy. Indeed, as Busoni in the late 1800s translated the solo violin score into something that embraced the modern piano’s expressive/technical scope, listening to these arrangements side-by-side was like hearing what Bach’s prescience bequeathed to the Romantic era. Here was some of his legacy.
Daily Info Michael Dornan, September 2015

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