BPO – The Soldier’s Tale – Alistair McGowan (the Devil), Sian Edwards (conductor)

This fabulous concert was more Brighton Philharmonic Jazz-bands than Orchestra as the ensemble on stage changed dramatically for each item in the programme. It began with the biggest group, for Stravinsky’s perky ‘Ebony Concerto’, featuring a solo clarinet (Fiona Cross) supported by plenty of woodwind and brass. The only strings were a double-bass and a harp. I love this work but have only ever heard it before on the radio. The instrumentation is most unusual for a symphony orchestra so it is expensive and doesn’t often earn a place in concert programmes. In the super-clear acoustic of the newly wood-lined Corn Exchange the individual qualities of each instrument were a joyous revelation. It was possible to pick out the muted trombone, the bass clarinet, and all the different sounds you can get from five spectacular solo trumpets. It can be difficult on the radio to catch the piano’s snappy interjections, or appreciate fully the vital contribution of a virtuoso percussionist (Chris Brannick) – in the live concert these were happily very obvious. My only complaint is it was over far too soon – I could gladly have listened to it all over again.

Incidentally, I learned once more that I can indeed enjoy the sound of saxophones – when played with such sensitivity and energy. This was confirmed, with thanks to the alto clarinet (Harry Penny), by the hauntingly sensuous opening of the second work, music for the ballet ‘La Création du Monde’ by Darius Milhaud. Bacchanalian and voluptuous, this was a real test of the conductor, her precision and control, and quite the most exciting work in the concert. Again, this is so seldom performed that it was very special to hear it live.

The following suite from Kurt Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ was reassuringly familiar, almost comfortable, when for a staged production it might be rougher and more acid. On this occasion I was happy not to have actors barking Brecht’s text at me. The small band was joined at the piano by the Music Director herself, Joanna MacGregor, whose entr’acte chats and reminiscences with Sian Edwards had already added another level of entertainment. Their natural informality really draws the audience into this friendly music atmosphere.

Alistair Mcgowan by Clare Park

Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ filled the second half of the evening. I was surprised by the amplification of the narrator (Jo Castleton). It risked overwhelming the band, now just a handful of players. In that beautiful space there was no need for microphones except for a hearing loop. The Soldier didn’t need amplifying. You could almost guess this simple everyman’s lines. Max Keeble played him straight and uncomplicated, until the extended ballet sequence with the Princess, an elegant Claire Guntrip. It was odd watching a half-staged concert performance with the cast sometimes stuck in their scores, awaiting their cues. However, Alistair McGowan as a subtle and diverse Devil completely embodied his lines which came forth in a Chimerical assortment of accents and styles. Taking a scarf or hat to become an old man, old woman, comrade or captain – McGowan’s body and expressions were as flexible as his voice in this bravura performance. It was quite a shock at the end when the Devil appeared in his true apparel, a fine full-length scarlet gown.

This silly Russian morality tale gives all the best lines to the Devil and the action can so easily detract from the music. I preferred it when the players were not talking over the band. It’s no surprise that the musicians were astonishingly good, Ruth Rogers playing a very seductive fiddle, John Ellwood delivering florid scales on his trumpet as if it were a clarinet. It was, after all, an orchestral concert and a very rare selection of masterpieces.

An evening performance and a change of venue was a marketing risk but the excellent acoustics and comfortable new seating were very welcome. The capacity audience went out into the February rain very content.

Brighton Dome Corn Exchange,
25 February 2024
Rating: ★★★★½
Andrew Connal

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