Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Caucasian....

...chalk circle. No! ....body in the morgue. No! ....Chamber Orchestra. Yes! Could someone not have advised them on the name for the band?

This is a new orchestra, conducted by the multi-talented Uwe Berkemer. It consists of 17 or so string players, and so plays string orchestra music, mostly. Today's concert, in the Royal District Theatre, was of Armenian music.

It was my first event in this theatre, but the map was good, so there should be no trouble finding it.... except it was up a tiny back street, and looking at the houses around it, you would never have expected to see a functioning theatre there - the houses either side of it were semi-derelict, and suddenly, in the middle of them up popped this newly restored theatre (which on the inside, also had some picturesquely cracked walls).

So, the Armenian ambassador did a speech, the German and British ambassadors were there (the Brit left after the first half - well, he's a bagpipe player; the German ambassador has a certain resemblance with me and people have made mistakes - women with short hair and all that, though she wears bigger ear-rings).

Anyway, the orchestra launched into play, starting with Edvard Mirzoyan's 'Poem Epitaph'. Guys, it's probably not good to start with a quiet piece - everyone is nervous, you are a little orchestra, and the audience can hear the fear. It was quite disjointed, though in the noisy bit in the middle the orchestra got it together - only to fall apart again at the quiet end.

The orchestra then exploded into Alexander Arutunian's Sinfonietta, with more than a passing resemblance with Britten's 'Simple Symphony'. Not many composers start a piece with a 'presto' movement! Like the simple symphony, the third movement was almost entirely pizzicato; and the final movement was certainly an 'allegro risoluto' - nothing wishy-washy about this one. The orchestra was now much more in control and ready to give it all.

Eight of Komitas' folksongs followed, arranged by Sergei Aslamazyan. They were arranged in a slightly Hollywood, sickly sweet way without the rawness and passion that you get from a performance by a folk group (particularly in the restaurant 'Kavkaz' in Yerevan). Very pleasant, but not 'as Armenian' as they could be. 8 folksongs might have been a bit too many, but they were playing from a score which had even more!

After the very long interval (did I mention Armenian time-keeping? it seems to have come with the music. I had not noticed it in the theatres, but today there was a certain leisurely approach to time and sitting down in your seat) we had Mirzoyan's symphony for string orchestra and timpany. At the time of printing the programme the soloist was not known. Turned out that the conductor was the soloist! There he was, in front of 4 timps, waving his sticks about. Not only did he have to conduct, but also play and retune the timps at the same time. To be fair, this piece had no more 'timp'ing than a normal symphony with the timps behind - there was one stunning solo, and another wee snatch of timping, but otherwise the timps were slightly oversold. One could see it coming because as the conductor approached yet another entry he began to conduct more and more wildly, and then a little 'pop' would be heard. Not quite in the class of the French timpanist who in Vilnius a few years ago played a piece for 5 timps on 4 of them, with arms and legs flying all over the place - but that guy did not have to conduct as well.

The audience, which clapped wildly at all suitable and unsuitable moments (the Armenian touch again) had hardly time to draw breath at the end of the concert, when the orchestra launched into the encore with the Armenian song 'Lori' (as in Lori Marz, a local government region?). I watched aghast as the conductor faced the audience with some music in his hand - but actually he is a very fine singer and carried it off with much aplomb. Much better than some other conductors who would be advised to keep their mouths shut!

Now, you might be asking yourself 'what is a German conductor, relatively unknown, doing founding a chamber orchestra in the Caucasus?' I suspect that as always love might be involved. I was surprised to see in the audience a very blond child in the company of a Georgian lady, and wondered how they fitted together. The conductor is very blond, too. It may be that the leader of the second violin, who is the mother of the child, may also be very close - as in married? - to the conductor. It is pretty decent of them that she leads the second fiddles and not the whole orchestra, as some other such couples would do.