Friday 31 July 2015

At the Bristol Proms

Håkon and Mari Samuelsen at the Bristol Proms - photo Jon Rowley
Håkon and Mari Samuelsen at the Bristol Proms
photo Jon Rowley
Bristol Proms; Håkon and Mari Samuelsen, Alison Balsom; Bristol Old Vic
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 29 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Highly theatrical and engaging pair of concerts, breaking boundaries

Bristol Old Vic, built in 1766, is Britain's oldest working theatre and it hosted musical as well as theatrical events. The 19th century promenade concerts hosted artists such as Paganini and were the inspiration for the current series of Bristol Proms. Brainchild of Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, and supported by Universal Music, the concerts use the lovely 18th century auditorium (with some of the pit seats removed to create promenade places) but try to create a more casual attitude in performances, encouraging audiences to take pictures for social media, bring drinks in and clap when the wanted. But in fact at the two concerts which I attended, the audience members showed little deviation from the normal concert behaviour. However there was an exciting buzz around the concerts, and you got the impression that audience members were rather more diverse, and younger, than is often the case.

I went along on Wednesday 29 July 2015 and caught two concerts. First the Norwegian brother and sister  Håkon and Mari Samuelsen (he a cellist, she a violinist) with Sinfonia Cymru, and then a late night prom with Alison Balsom. The Samuelsen's concert Pure Minimalist Baroque mixed baroque work by Bach, Barriere and Vivaldi, with contemporary works by Sollima, Glass, Pärt and Einaudi. Whilst Alison Balsom was joined by two further trumpeters for a programme which ranged from Purcell to jazz plus David Mitcham's At the Top of the Tide, winner of the Bristol Fanfare Competition.

Alison Balsom at the Bristol Proms - photo Jon Rowley
Alison Balsom at the Bristol Proms - photo Jon Rowley
The first concert started in dramatic style with a smoke filled stage and just the dim outlines of violinist Mari Samuelsen as she launched into a vibrantly confident performance of JS Bach's Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin. It was  remarkably brave star, requiring the audience to concentrate on the music, and it certainly was a performance worth concentrating on. Håkon Samuelsen followed this with a contemporary work, Giovanni Sollima's evocative and rather folk-inspired Solo.

The performers then moved to the front of the stage and from then on performances were given in front of the drop curtain, and given a theatrical glamour with lighting and animations by Rod Maclachlan, Markus Over, Jamie Perrelet and Vladimir Bulatov projected onto the drop curtain behind the performers. The two soloists joined together for a sonata by the 18th century French cellist and composer Jean-Baptiste Barriere written for the rather effective combination of violin and cello. The Samuelsens were then joined by Benjamin Baker (violin) and Ann Beilby (viola) for a performance of music Philip Glass's Mishima which is taken from the soundtrack of the 1985 film Mishima: A life in four chapters.

After the interval Mari Samuelsen was joined Sinfonia Cymru for Arvo Pärt's Fratres which made a very strong effect, especially accompanied by such a theatrical presentation. We then moved back in time for a couple of movements of Vivaldi's Concerto for Violin and Cello in B flat major with the siblings sparring with each other in lively fashion.

More Philip Glass followed, with the Samuelsens, Benjamin Baker and Ann Beilby playing the Suite from Bent, the music originally written for the 1997 film. In fact the music seemed remarkably calm for such a tense subject. Next came music from the highly evocative Divenire by the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, a work originally written in 2002 for piano, strings and two harps. The concert finished with an intriguing combination of old and new, the Passacaglia by Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) based on a theme by Handel.

It would be easy to be fooled by the Samuelsen's theatricality, showmanship and sheer sexiness, but the combined this with strong musicality and up-front technique in a wide range of music to create a very satisfying show.

The timing of the late night show which followed gave very little time for the audience to turn round and in fact when we left the auditorium at the end of the Samuelsen's concert the foyers were already full of those waiting for the late night concert, which added an element of hassle to what was intended as a relaxed presentation.

Alison Balsom was joined by a group of musicians including trumpeter Alan Wright Jonathan French, percussion, and Chad Kelly, harpsichord for a wide ranging programme. They started with trumpets in the auditorium playing Benjamin Britten's Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, followed by all three trumpeters playing what looked like huge alp horns, then a march by Purcell's contemporary John Eccles, demonstrating the wide variety of music and instruments available.

This variety continued with the three trumpeters playing cornets (which Alison Balsom described as looking like a Cornish pasty) in a concerto for three violins by Vivaldi played complete accompanied by harpsichord and double bass. The timbre of the three cornets, playing high was truly remarkable and their bravura technique was stunning. The other two players matched Alison Balsom admirably and the three chased each other delightfully in the last movement. Next came David Mitchell's At the Top of the Tide, the fanfare which won the Bristol Fanfare Competition and Alison Balsom premiered at Paddington Station on 27 July 2015 opening the Bristol Proms.

This section of the concert finished with Henry Purcell's moving Funeral Music for Queen Mary.

We then moved into more jazz/blues territory with a couple of numbers before a new piece by keyboard player Pierre O'Riley in which Alison Balsom used a loop pedal for the first time, so that she was in dialogue with herself. There was a great late-night feel to the piece, and we finished with another jazz standard, given a lovely Nelson Riddle styling.

Alison Balsom's concert was very much an experiment, a wide variety of repertoire held together by the trumpeter's strong technique, stylish playing and engaging personality. I think the mix needs a little tweaking but the audience certainly enjoyed itself.

The Bristol Proms continue all week with guitarist Milos on Friday 31 Juy in From Bach to the Beatles and on Saturday 1 August a celebration of John Rutter's 70th birthday, the Erebus Ensemble in Tallis's Spem in Alium, and a showcase for the Gift of Music project which has seen musicians from Sinfonia Cymru engaging with children from Bristol primary Schools.

(Apologies if some of the names of the musicians are omitted/wrong, the programme did not name all those performing)

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