Midway through Saturday's afternoon concert in Aldeburgh church, fronted by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, I was strongly reminded of Biff Smith, lead singer of The Starlets. Now, even if you're familiar with this Scottish indie band, the connection might not seem obvious. However, both have a charming way with words and stories and use it to build up a rapport with the audience, drawing them in and making them laugh. Outside a classical music concert such an approach is commonplace; in one it comes as something of a breath of fresh air.
It was all the more striking as the musical day, had, in fact, not begun with Kuusisto's concert, but rather in the Snape Maltings with the exciting new ensemble Spira Mirabilis. Now, in point of fact, I have previously encountered more or less all the things that give them their freshness, though not all packaged together like this. What many would notice first is their lack of a conductor. This, of course, is not unique. In addition to the various soloists who direct from the keyboard, there are various chamber sized orchestras who play some or all of the time without a conductor and do so very successfully. Perhaps the most famous example is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, but I have also heard the SCO do it. A key difference, though, is that with the SCO one player, for example cellist David Watkin, has taken on the role of directing them while also playing. And, as Watkin himself notes, for him "'direct' doesn't depart much from 'conduct'". Spira Mirabilis seem to have taken a more consensual and democratic approach.
So, anyway, they aver. Watching them rehearse is an interesting experience, reminding me rather of various committees I've sat on. To be sure everyone gets a say and can challenge things, but there are a few people making most of the running and there are a couple of very clear leaders. It strikes me more as directors held accountable rather than no directors. It would be very interesting now to watch the Orpheus rehearse. Another issue raised by democracy and the lack of a conductor is what happens when strings want one approach and brass another, given the fact that strings outnumber brass and there is no referee. Also, as with a committee, such an approach rewards those who are more confident speakers and better at making an argument. Certainly, there was no shortage of players saying little or nothing. In addition, there was rather less of the sort of "let's hear this passage with violas and horns" than I might expect at a conventional rehearsal.
Another difference that follows on from this is the length of time they spend rehearsing, including spending three hours on a ten minute stretch of a Beethoven symphony. Certainly this enables them to dig deeper, and that is no bad thing. Indeed, it is part of what has led Tom Service to hail this as the future of orchestras (oddly without waiting to witness the results). Others, such as Richard Bratby note that there are economic considerations which make the practicality of this questionable. It is also worth noting that while such an approach is certainly great for the players, is the benefit really there for the audience? The last extraordinary Beethoven 4th I heard came from Mackerras and the SCO, and they plumbed the work's depths without massively extended rehearsal periods.
The third obvious difference is the single work in a programme. This does deliver a big gain for the audience. Again, it is not new, but it is something that should be tried more often as it is very effective (though there are economic considerations - you can't charge the same for much less). At the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, Brian McMaster showcased the approach by having nine nights with three separate concerts on each: a teatime performance of a Beethoven symphony with Charles Mackerras and mostly the SCO, a late performance of a Bruckner symphony, and sandwiched between them a masterwork. Now, while putting, say, a big Mahler symphony on its own in a programme is fairly common, putting a twenty-five minute Beethoven, such as the 4th, is not. As Mackerras, and now Spira Mirabilis have shown, it is something that should be copied further. It allows what is often a filler to shine it its full glory and be appreciated all the more.
For Spira Mirabilis's final distinction we return to the title of this post: breaking down the barrier that often exists between orchestra and audience. This started with horn player Francesco Bossaglia taking a microphone and welcoming us to a concert. Now, I can be wary of conductors or players speaking as when done badly it can be frustrating. However, not so here. He drew our attention to some of the differences I've mentioned, and told us that there would be a question and answer session afterwards. And with that they launched into Beethoven 4.
I wouldn't quite agree with the questioner who suggested the performance that followed was revelatory. In part, however, that may be because the 4th has always been one of my favourites. It often seems to be regarded as less than the 'great' Beethoven symphonies, and doubtless being sandwiched between the 3rd and 5th doesn't help in this regard. At other times it is described as Haydnesque, though given what an exceptional symphonist he was, a touch of that is no bad thing. However, if anything would change such a perception, it is a standalone performance of a work that would generally not headline a concert programme.
And they played it beautifully. From the slow introduction to the energy and excitement of the main theme, this was the kind of performance that picks you up and carries you along with it. Far from causing any problems, the lack of a conductor showed a heightened and fascinating level of communication. This was especially obvious between the principal first and second violins, cellist and violist. Indeed, at times they resembled a string quartet in their manner. Of course, this behaviour is present to some extent in any decent orchestra, but to see things working in quite that detail was wonderful.
Their approach, and this was confirmed afterwards, was generally historically informed but not rigidly so. In other words, a metronome marking is a starting point but they will not follow it slavishly. This is just the sort of middle ground I find most satisfying in this repertoire. Certainly, the slow introduction seemed a little slower than many, ratcheting up the tension that bit more, and there was a wonderfully deep and weighty climax at the heart of the slow movement. Generally though it tended more towards lightness and fun and it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday morning.
The discussion afterwards was an interesting addition. Some people felt they undercut their concept by playing an ecore. It was a fair point. I am, as regular readers will know, not always a fan of the practice, and after many works it can be downright daft. Here, though, somehow I felt we had focused on the Beethoven in the way it deserved and the addition of the overture to Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia didn't detract. In addition, as the players pointed out, you couldn't do a programme of just an overture, so without an encore they'd never get to play it. And I'm very glad they did. In the wrong hands Rossini can feel lifeless and repetitive.; not so when played with the sort of wit and sparkle and Spira Mirabilis brought.
Put it another way, not only were we all left very glad we're going to their second performance of the festival (another 4th symphony, this time Schubert's), but we all hurried to get tickets to their open rehearsal. If Spira Mirabilis come your way, you should rush to check them out.
Which takes us back to Aldeburgh church and where we started. Pekka Kuusisto's approach was very different, and yet similar at the same time, for he too was inviting the audience in with his banter. It was an interesting programme as it was perhaps not quite such a purely classical concert as is the norm at Aldeburgh, and yet it fit in perfectly. The link was Bartók and his Contrasts, which gave the programme its title. It was originally commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman to play with violinist Joseph Szigeti, and certainly there was a rapport between the players that wouldn't have been entirely out of place in a jazz gig. Indeed, the concert opened with an improvisation on the Romanian folk dances that Bartók transcribed on his visit there, played by Kuusisto, together with Hans-Kristian Kjos Sorensen on cymbalum.
The Bartók was probably the most compositionally accomplished piece of the afternoon, but this too was laced with fun, such as the joking way in which pianist Alasdair Beatson reminded Kuusisto that he'd need his second (differently tuned) violin, and indeed the manner in which he switched them. Clarinetist Matthew Hunt matched them both in technical skill and manner.
In his speaking, Kuusisto both entertained, such as when he inquired if anyone had a horse, such was the frequency with which he was burning through the strings on his bow, but also informed, as when he gave us the backstory to pianist Iiro Rantala's Gigi. Though here too his joviality was present, questioning whether the story of a prostitute of advancing years was suitable for a church. I presume the furious beating of the rain against the windows was down to the natural patterns of the weather rather than any heavenly wrath. Elsewhere, the fun and aptly named Rush, by Sebastian Fagerlund received its UK premiere. Indeed, specially rearranged as there was room for only the one piano in the church.
We also got works by Kurtag, of whom I'm not a fan, and Erkki-Sven Tüür who, we were told, as Kuusisto spread out his music over several stands, is great composer but cannot write page turns.
After a second brief interval came some Finnish tango music and more. This was played with as much pizzaz as anything on the programme. The result, as we walked back to the car afterwards, was a pleasant warm glow.
Too often at a classical concert it seems that there is a wall between performers and audience, sometimes to such an extent that the latter might almost not be there. Such could perhaps be said of the way Boulez almost totally ignored the audience as he went on and off the stage at last year's festival. In my concert going experience this seems pretty well uniquely confined to classical gigs. And, as I think, I can find no good reason for it. It seems to me that the ensembles and artists who thrive in the coming years will be the ones who connect with their audiences. That doesn't mean classical music needs to dumb down, it doesn't mean every artist should clown around on the stage. Spira Mirabilis and Kuusisto showed two totally different ways of getting to the same place, and I'm sure there are a million others. Yet artists and ensembles should be trying to find them much harder than many of them seem to be.