REVIEW: Coffee Concert

Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble at Brighton Done/Corn Exchange, Sunday March 15 at 11am.

Nielsen Wind Quintet – Flute, Catherine Hare; Oboe/cor anglais, Charlotte Evans; Clarinet, Ewan Zuckert; French Horn, Kaitlyn Lipka; Bassoon, Todd Gibson-Cornish.

Mozart Serenade No 10 in Bb for 13 wind instruments ‘Gran Partita’ K361 – Clarinets, Alan Shellard, Ewan Zuckert; Basset Horns, William Knight, Elliot Gresty; Oboes, Rebecca Watt, Andre Martina Machado; Bassoons, Todd Gibson-Cornish, Greg Topping; French Horns, Samuel Walker, Ranita Klimach, Fabian van der Geest, Ana Feijao; Double Bass, Jon Mikel Martinez.

The door quietly opens at the distant end of the waiting open space. Through it emerges a sequence of figures, all in black, their features part-silhouetted against the dull morning light coming in from the huge windows above and behind them as they walk steadily across the floor. Each silent figure carries not a gun of destruction, but an instrument of peace-giving.

Applause rises from an audience laid out in three sides of a square. The figures advance, unvarying in pace and arrive to take up unusual positions. Some form a deep U-shape, its two prongs fitting snugly inside the embrace of the open two arms of the square. Nine figures stand, forming the U and behind the curve four more pair up in two separate yet complementary stations.

For all bar a lucky few in the waiting audience, this sight is completely unprecedented. The musicians are revealed to be 10 young men and three young women. They lift their instruments and a simultaneous long deep breath fills 24 lungs. In curiosity and wonder, 400 more lungs in the audience enlarge. “What on earth is this going to sound like?”

What comes, for all bar that lucky few, is also unprecedented. The word ‘stunning’ is one you see on event posters and in arts marketing articles so often that invisible little blue bags of salt ought to accompany them. But stunned is what the audience will have been − including those lucky few who thought they knew what to expect but were now hearing anew the 13-strong opening Bb chord live.

In huge, deliberate, divine strides the music starts out. Such richness, yet sometimes earthiness; such power, such strangeness; such unexpected and massive collective regalness. It is the unforgettable impact of the slow introduction of a unique Wind Serenade from 18th Century Munich and Vienna − the Gran Partita. Say the number ‘361’ and from now on it can only ever mean this.

No other composer than Mozart could have conceived quite this whole experience, makes us sense in the music a detached majesty and yet an outreaching and welcoming amiability, all in one warm feel. As optionally prescribed, a double-bass is here substituting for a double bassoon. Soon, a long chord of anticipation is held, and out bubbles at more than brisk speed an allegro that tells us this is to be a substantial encounter with street music as well as banqueting music.

The players continually look at each other in pairs and across the U as a team. Various players in turn become focal points at certain moments. In pairs, they often turn to each other and chatter, chuckle, and then combine to tease the others. Games are being played all over the place. The double-bass player frequently smiles at his couple of cahoots bassoonists. The four horns behind the curve are commenting aiding and abetting. The first clarinet directs the whole thing while yet still playing, himself.

The fun and exhilaration all 13 players are having becomes ours. We, seated in the round, can catch each other’s eyes across the open square and smile. When did you last do that at a classical music in serried ranks of resolutely forward-facing audience seating?

There comes a Minuet, gold-studdedly boasting two contrasting trios instead of one. An Adagio, made famous in the film of Amadeus, halts time − even though the instruments never stop moving and interchanging the food and drink they are sharing and exchanging. Another Minuet follows, again with twice its trio quota. This is truly a large and special occasion being depicted, and experienced by both the players and listeners.

A Romanze takes us into reverie, then out jumps a cheeky presto-paced allegretto. The Romanze re-casts its spell and then Mozart flexes his invention yet further with a theme with many virtuoso variations. In one later variation, the many accompanying instruments sound, I swear, like a deep, serenely flowing and eddying river at high tide.

Then for the finale, Mozart cracks the whip and this magically imposing ensemble tears home with such elan and vigour that when it finishes there breaks out cheering and clapping of an abandon unequalled at any of these Coffee Concerts. The first bassoonist asks if we’d like to hear the finale again, Daft question. The reply is of 200 people all holding out their glasses for another pint of nectar to be poured them from the giant flagon.

Without the Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble bringing this prohibitively outsized and untourable chamber composition, one-off, to the Coffee Concerts, neither they nor we would be having this potential experience of a lifetime in live classical music playing or listening. Last season, they brought Schubert’s Octet so memorably one was satisfied the moment could not be emulated. Yet now it has been eclipsed (five days ahead of the moon doing just this to the sun) and this new pattern of series programming opens up possible future riches of music fronted by Richard Strauss and Mozart giving us at least three more great Serenades around which to build a Coffee Concert.

Of the five RCMWE members who opened this one with Carl Nielsen’s fascinating Wind Quintet, one can only feel sympathy for the three who then listened from the sidelines in envy at those chosen to play the Gran Partita.

Another fascinating end to another outstanding season. As the audience left for the Spring and Summer, RCMWE director Simon Canning, who had been listening in the audience, bestowed upon double-bassman Jon Mikel Martinez (by definition a string player) official honorary membership of the Wind Department.

Those 13 may never get this chance again. Neither may we. No recording or broadcast could ever match this hearing of it live and in the flesh – and, of course, in the round. Note, above, these musicians’ names. Any could appear in your favourite orchestra over the coming years. Or here at a future Coffee Concert forming a new ensemble in the early days of their post-graduate professional lives.

For next season’s dates, see www.stringsattached.org.uk

Richard Amey