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Paths less travelled by

(Unexpurgated) review of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo’s Troubled Seas and Forest Paths concert

I appreciate it must be tiresome – not to say slightly unnerving – listening to middle-aged boffins frotting over high-grade music, and that it’s not much better when the middle-aged boffins are actually in their 20s. But what to do? That’s the job.

The CMSC’s recording-quality performance of Mozart’s Il Re Pastore overture had me salivating and (I checked) my heart actually racing. This is what CMSC does best – pieces that are logistically small-scale, but technically and emotionally demanding – and what puts them in a league of their own is a simple matter of unity. Cohesion. Plenty of spirit, too, of course; but mere élan is worthless without discipline – as faithful followers of French rugby will attest.

Can’t say I warmed to the Hindemith, though (cue jokes about what happens if you let a viola-player run the show). Some of the Acht Stücke had more zip than others, but, matters of non-resolution and atonality having moved on in the intervening 80 years, this once-radical stuff now seems just a bit passé and wilful: like looking at photos of your old haircuts. An unrelaxing 20 minutes for the musicians, the eight pieces were nonetheless tidily rendered – this being very much an instance of Ben Franklin’s ‘hang together or hang separately’ dictum – even if the confidence of the delivery was generally in inverse proportion to the number of players involved. Serious kudos, though, for a serious tackling of a serious work.

If Hindemith stück it too us rather less than one might have feared, Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D min opened on a far more aggressive note (a D) than one would ever have expected. Weary and unimaginative reviewers like to remind folks that ‘baroque’ actually means ‘misshapen’, and this piece – one of 12 ‘harmonic inspirations’ – recalled a bold and adventurous phase in the wild Western musical tradition. Scored for two violins and a cellist, plus continuo, the concerto strained to heights of tension and suspense that are totally beyond metaphor; cellist Dushy Perera played phenomenally in ‘Allegro’; and such was the soloists’ attack and vigour that their deputies fled their desks.

CMSC’s composer-in-residence, Stephen Allen, was also conductor-insitu for the Colombo premiere of his Forest Paths song cycle. Musically, the work sits somewhere between John Adams’ harmonic-rhythmic motivation and the intense lyricism of Benjamin Britten (who produced his own good stuff about turbulent seas). Kind of a soundtrack for a wistful-Canadian-poet film that will never get funding.

The text for the soaringly operatic vocal part was Allen’s own, ‘loosely depicting the moods and changes within a forest’. Loosely, alas, was about right. From Mary Anne David’s fragile delivery I identified ‘glorious day’ and ‘sunshine’, ‘I love you’ and ‘little else’. In short, we couldn’t hear the words for the trees.

There is nothing wrong with David’s pitch, and she has a wonderful sustain; but her tone is old and clouded. Unfortunately many of the most beautiful moments in the suite – incl. some elegiac Ethel-Smyth-style string melodies (no relation) – occurred while David was not singing. The ecstatic garlanding that followed was just plain embarrassing.

If the interval was designed to pour oil on troubled waters, Handel’s ‘Overture’ to Alessandro tossed a match onto the resulting millpond. It’s not GF’s greatest work, it must be said, but it was worth it just to watch Othman Hassan Majid at second violin. The man’s action is so smooth you’d think he was miming: the sound seems to just emanate from somewhere nearby.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in G min (‘Il Mare Turbito’ – you sea?) started superbly, but flagged in the slow middle sections. The second movement was particularly untidy, and the violas conspicuously fluffed their few opportunities to shine (every joke about violas is true, by the way). I’m not saying the CMSC were complacent, but they are adrenaline junkies, and they need to regulate the IV.

For whatever reasons, though – a feisty ‘Allegro di molto’; a phone ringing in the audience – the team rediscovered their mojo in the closing movement, which was of truly professional standard. Righteous applause, and even a few whistles. The Symphony Orchestra doesn’t get whistles. Not on the good days, anyway.

Two footnotes, which I am inclined to start appending to every review:

1) There is a clear rule that you don’t clap between movements unless the performance has been so spectacular your hands take matters into their own: it distracts the musicians and breaks the mood. This rule stands even when your favourite Aunty is singing solo.

2) When you’re asked to turn off your phone, it’s not a polite request from some over-sensitive-musician types. It’s part of the contract of your attendance. If you’re expecting a call, stay home.

Expurgated version here.