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‘Stargazer’: Timothy Redmond & The Cambridge Philharmonic

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Conductor Tim Redmond got the Cambridge Philharmonic off to an interesting season at West Road on Saturday night where two modern compositions, one by John Adams and the other by Jonathan Dove, were performed together with the 5th Symphony of Prokofiev and one of the latter’s practically unknown short works.

John Adams’ The Chairman Dances is described by its composer as an ‘outtake’ from his opera based on Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (19790837)
Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (19790837)

It’s a short, vigorous piece with a repetitive drive that modulates into a passage of ballroom music to create Adams’ fantasy of Chairman Mao and his second wife, the one-time celebrity actress Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), dancing together and re-living the time of their early relationship.

The Orchestra delivered a sustained exciting rhythm, while the wood block in the percussion section gave an authentic Chinese atmosphere to the composition.

Tim Redmond introduced Autumnal Sketch Opus 8 (1910) as an early, lovely ‘unknown’ piece by Prokofiev but one, he thought, unlikely to feature much in the repertoire because of its brevity. Nevertheless, it was considered sufficiently highly by its composer to be revisited and modified more than once throughout his career. A reflective, slightly menacing work, it was of course one well suited to the time of year when a new music ‘season’ commences.

Stargazer, lending its title to the whole evening’s performance, is a trombone concerto by Jonathan Dove. And to play it at West Road on Saturday was BBC Young Musician of the Year (2008), Peter Moore, aged only 12 when he won that award.

In his pre-performance conversation with Tim Redmond, Peter referred to the trombone as an ‘endangered instrument’ insofar as it’s had, for example, no composers such as Mozart or Haydn with their horn and trumpet concertos respectively to address the task. Mendelsohn and Britten apparently almost got round to it, but never did.

The trombone has always been associated more with big band or jazz music (‘Take a bone, Dixie-grown, Now you has jazz’ - Bing Crosby) or rock ‘n roll (‘Little Joe was blowin’ on the slide trombone’ - Elvis Presley). Classical music has seemed to elude or ignore it.

Jonathan Dove sets out to rectify this omission, gesturing at Mozart’s piano variations on the tune known as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, occasionally including its melodic line in the concerto as the ‘telescopic’ trombone makes its lonely inter-stellar journey in search of an orchestral response.

In his conversation, Peter described interestingly the ‘athleticism’ of being an instrumentalist, and of how brass players in particular were (perhaps raising a few eyebrows) obsessed ‘with maintenance, not so much with practice’.

Judging by his performance of Stargazer it would appear that Peter Moore needn’t worry too much about practice. Being happy with the ‘sound’ enables the musician to keep faith with what one is doing musically, he maintained, and in his hands the trombone displayed just what it can be capable of; sometimes lyrical, sometimes comical; growly, even scary, it proved the most versatile and beautiful of instruments.

Ironically, Dove’s idea of making the trombone regret a lack of compositions for it to play has in fact, in the process, created for it a marvellous one, and who better to perform it than Peter Moore? The audience was enthralled.

Concluding the concert was Prokofiev’s triumphant Symphony No. 5 Op. 100, a symphony written at the end of World War 2 to reflect, in the composer’s own words, ‘the greatness of the human spirit’. For the Russians it represented liberation from fascism; its Moscow premiere was accompanied by the distant and audible sounds of actual victorious artillery fire. In the West it symbolized a freeing up of creativity from Soviet suppression, making it comparable in spirit with the 10th Symphony of Shostakovich which appeared shortly after the death of Stalin in 1953.

There is a melancholy Adagio in the symphony, but the first two movements, and the Finale offer an orchestra the opportunity to communicate elevated and ecstatic emotions which the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra achieved in a powerful and spectacular manner.

This was an invigorating and varied programme. Cambridge Phil’s musicians did a great job, and especially the elusive ‘wood blocker’ (where was he / she hidden?) whose intriguing rhythmic contributions concluded the final work on the programme, just as they’d concluded the first one.


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