BPO – Mighty River: Celebrating Women – Ayanna Witter-Johnson (guest performer), Joanna MacGregor (conductor)

This was another of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s risky concerts, so different was the mix of works. Music Director, Joanna MacGregor, welcomed us and introduced her programme. I could listen to her all day talking about music and then she sits at the Steinway! She opened the concert with two delightful works for solo piano: Meredith Monk’s ‘Ellis Island’ is a gentle, reflective work, written as three minutes of incidental music for a silent movie. It got my ears tuned in to listening carefully. ‘Good Bait’ by Nina Simone is not much longer but considerably more powerful. This was no warm-up overture – its climax was a flaming inferno and brought the house down.

While four places were set up for the orchestra’s principal strings, Joanna MacGregor told us of her enthusiasm for Eleanor Alberga, whose ‘Clouds: Scudding’, a minimalist piece for piano and quartet, is the first section of a ballet. Then the full orchestra took their places for Errollyn Wallen’s ‘Mighty River’, a worthy commemoration of the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Its rhythmic textures included quotations from ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Deep River’.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

After the interval the guest performer, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, took the stage to sing four songs accompanying herself on her cello. Joanna MacGregor’s lavish praise is well justified. Sadly, I was not likely to enjoy her talented performance because the cello was amplified. I found the wash of sound unnecessarily loud. There was every chance that her pretty voice would have carried unaided throughout the auditorium too. Her set was for a totally different type of concert and one I would decline.

In contrast, Florence Price’s ‘Mississippi River Suite’ is a witty half hour compilation of American musical tropes with all kinds of moods and scenes. The storm sequence was most impressive, the brass band moments were great fun and the strings seemed to enjoy sloshing around with their rippling phrases and glissandos. It made a very happy conclusion to the evening.

The hall was nowhere near full which is such a shame when so much care had been taken to celebrate International Women’s Day. However, it was Friday, and in the evening – rather than the familiar and safer Sunday afternoon. This had excluded many of the regular audience who would have felt very uneasy among the jostling crowds (and fire jugglers!) in Church Street and New Road. The next BPO concert is back to the usual day, time and place, with Britten and Debussy. The only novelty is the British première of Geirr Tveitt’s ‘Three Fjords’ concerto, a very accessible and entertaining work. I do hope the BPO’s traditional audience will take their seats again.

Dome Concert Hall,
8 March 2024
Rating: ★★★½☆
Andrew Connal

Leave a Comment

Related Articles