One of the real strengths of Jonathan Mills's tenure as Artistic Director has been the increased presence of contemporary music in the classical programme. It has also been encouraging this year, having attended most performances which could be placed in that category, to see what seems to be larger audiences at these events. I can remember occasions when merely playing one new piece in an otherwise safe Edinburgh programme was enough for attendance to plummet. This strand of the programme reached its Usher Hall climax last night (there is still Olga Neuwirth's new opera to come at the King's) with Ensemble musikFabrik's outstanding tribute to Frank Zappa.
Zappa was in fact only part of a very cleverly devised programme also including John Cage and Edgard Varese. The programme note begins from the premise that Varese is the link and that otherwise Cage and Zappa actually don't have much in common, but my impression from the performance was that this was actually not the case. There seemed in particular to be distinct parallels in use of percussion and rhythmic complexity between Cage's Credo in US and a number of the Zappa pieces.
It is perhaps worth pausing here to consider the inclusion of work by Zappa at the Festival. Generally speaking I don't think this is a problem, the Proms have long included jazz, traditional music and other off the wall stuff, and the Aldeburgh Festival also included a Britten inspired jazz evening this year. As long as this did not take us down a path where the more obviously classical (and by that I mean anything from early music to a world premiere) was being overwhelmed by other styles then there is no issue. But in fact I would doubly praise this programme because it was devised in such a way as to demonstrate that the gap between the worlds of the three composers was very much smaller than one might initially imagine – here the inclusion of Varese alongside Zappa was an especially important decision.
And so to the music. The first half was more low key, beginning with an arrangement of two Zappa pieces Big Swifty and T'Mershi Duween for small chamber forces. These were enjoyable but as I'd never heard a note of Zappa to my knowledge before this they didn't really give me much sense of the riches to follow after the interval. Then came the two John Cage works – Credo in US dating from 1942 and Seven from 1988. Credo in US has four players, a pianist, two percussionists with an entertaining variety of instruments including electric buzzer and gongs, and a record player operator which Cage suggested, according to the programme note, should play “some classic: e.g. Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich”. I definitely caught snatches of the last named, but my ear was not acute enough to identify others. This was a model of how to integrate recordings with live performer (the record player-piano duel was especially well done) in some contrast to Tod Machover's rather less successful minglings for the RSNO the previous evening. Altogether I found this piece an intriguing discovery, and it certainly passed my first test for any new work – I would go and hear it again. I was much less convinced by Seven which after the novelty of the first use of the various percussion instruments (including the one which looks like a lassoo and made one fear for the safety of fellow players) became increasingly tedious.
The interval was bracketed by two performances of Varese's Ionisation for thirteen percussionists intended I think to emphasis the parallels with both Cage and Zappa (this double performance was just as well as the Usher Hall suffered an impressive front of house failure of which more at the end of this review). This was an opportunity for many of Ensemble musikFabrik to show off their versatility, leaving their regular instruments for a variety of percussion all under the expert direction of clarinetist Carl Rosman. As with other pieces in the evening the rhythmic variety and precision was striking (and made me lament the more that I missed the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's Varese in Week 1).
But really the real revelation of the evening was reserved for the second half almost wholly devoted to Zappa. We began with all three versions of The Black Page – the first for four percussionists was given a tour de force performance by Dirk Rothbrust, Johannes Fischer, Thomas Meixner and Rie Watanabe and the other two versions for varying combinations of the rest of the eensemble. And from then on it was an electrifying evening. I don't know the pieces well enough to locate in precisely which one the highlights occurred but they included magnificent virtuoso solos from Frank Wingold on electric guitar and Ulrich Loffler on keyboard, compereing from Bruce Collings on trombone which struck just the right note, a late and rather brilliant intervention from the combined string section, and holding it all together centre stage the extraordinary drummer Dirk Rothbrust. Finally, just as one was beginning to feel sorry for the extra percussionists (rather left out since The Black Page) out came some unusual looking cymbals for a final visual and aural feast.
Altogether this performance was one of the musical highlights of the 2013 Festival. Other Festivals should be rushing to secure a repeat and I shall be looking out for future appearances by the Ensemble in the UK.
Housekeeping Note: I referred above to the impressive Usher Hall front of house failure. Ushers appeared to be unaware that the interval was not scheduled to take place after Cage's Seven. Down in the Stalls they were bringing in ice creams, the house lights briefly came up and people understandably started to leave the auditorium. However, what the Hall really needs to examine is why the FoH management, given that this situation had occurred, failed to take prompt steps to get audience members back to their seats – again the problem was especially conspicuous in the Stalls with people drifting back into the hall throughout most of the Varese. Front of House should not be in any doubt about when an interval is to fall, but if such a confusion should arise a competent management should be able to act quicker to resolve it. It was as well under the circumstances that a) the Varese was performed twice and b) that it was not a quiet, intimate piece. Hopefully the lesson will be learnt.