Sunday 30 May 2010

Mr McFall's Chamber with Michael Marra (and why did nobody tell me Su-a Lee played the musical saw)

I've been meaning to sample Mr McFall's Chamber for a while: several people have recommended them to me, the fabulous Su-a Lee plays with them and that's not to mention the fact that they perform at the Queen's Hall which, as well as being a generally great venue, is just round the corner from me.  For some reason, I've never quite got round to it, until, that is, last night.

For Friday's concert the core, somewhat eclectic line up, ranging from the eponymous Robert McFall and Claire Sterling on violin, Brian Schiele on viola, Su-a Lee on cello (the last three all being members of the SCO) and Rick Standley on bass (of both the conventional and electric guitar varieties) to more exotic instruments with Phil Alexander on accordion, harmonium and glockenspiel, were joined by Scottish singer and songwriter Michael Marra.

Marra proved a charismatic performer, trailing each of his songs with long, elaborate and often very witty stories (indeed, in one case, as he himself admitted, the intro was longer than the song itself).  The songs themselves ranged all over the place, from settings of Burns, such as Green Grow the Rushes, to a song about an estranged relative from an earlier generation who died in the Yukon, to the tale of Grace Kelly's Visit to Tannadice, and finishing with Frida Kahlo's visit to the Tay Bridge Bar, the latter managing to be moving, funny and surreal all at the same time.

I'm not familiar with Marra's work, but am glad to have made acquaintance with it.  One wonders quite how well it would work on CD without the banter, but that is often the case with such performers.  The evening was being recorded, and the plan seems to be to release a CD from the gigs they're doing at the moment.  If I might make a suggestion: keep the intros.  I have all Tom Lehrer's CDs, but the only ones I listen to regularly are the live ones where he talks as well (not that Marra and Lehrer have too much in common, other than that their talk adds a lot to their songs).

The songs were interpersed with purely musical numbers, which ranged all over the place, from Bach like fugues to pieces inspired by Finnish islands, from Cuban congas to a lovely Dvorak bagatelle, which especially showed off the harmonium.  And yet, despite what on paper might seem a somewhat disparate programme, it actually fitted together very smoothly (indeed, in some respects it felt a little samey).  Robert McFall himself did a nice job of linking them, there was something charming about the way he kept framing things as "church announcements".

And, of course, there was the pleasant discovery that aside from playing the cello wonderfully, Su-a Lee is also a dab hand with the musical saw.  Played with a cello bow on the blunt side, flexing the blade, the result is a wonderful and almost otherworldly sound.  Actually, it seems to go hand in hand with the cello, since I know of at least two other cellists who pick up the saw from time to time.

There was some amplification, but it was done so subtly and well that to start with one almost wondered if it was at all - a hallmark of a job well done.  It was a slight pity that the person at the mixing desk stood throughout the first half, blocking my view somewhat (he clearly didn't need to, since he sat after the interval).

All in all, though, it was a good night and I'm sure I'll be hearing Mr McFall's Chamber again soon (they're next playing the Queen's Hall on the 26th June, an all tango programme, but I'm away at the Aldeburgh festival then).


Michelle said...

If you happen to talk with any of the cellists you know who play the musical saw, could you let them know about the annual Musical saw Festival in NYC, please? They might want to perform there. Of course, it's not easy travelling to New York... They can contact them through:

Tam Pollard said...

Will do - I've already given it a plug on Twitter (I'd love to get there myself one year).

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