Coffee Concert 18th April 2021 – Joanna MacGregor With Brighton Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble – Other Reviews


Joanna MacGregor’s habitual breaking of moulds, tearing-up of templates and radicalisation of routines should inspire and empower the Coffee Concerts after this arresting presentation. The new artistic director and conductor of Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra, installed during the pandemic in September and yet to stage her first BPO concert, stepped loose from chamber music convention and formula in her concluding third replacement Coffee Concert during its ‘winter of audience absence’.

The Coffee Concerts, based at The Attenborough Centre during the Corn Exchange rebuilding, forefront provincial-city live chamber music provision. They place London-standard mainstream repertoire of the last three centuries alongside new development driven by new young artistes, sometimes straddling music genres or varying instrumental combinations.

The series now in pandemic hibernation, MacGregor’s stop-gap guest appearances at The Dome in November and March were solid staple offerings, but this time four of her six chosen works edged beyond the current-day Coffee Concert menu.

A reduced-forces harpsichord concerto. An Estonian violin-piano duo composed in a new style beneath the Soviet watchtower. Three classic tango arrangements by MacGregor herself, whose piano parts exist only in her head. And unsuspected Vaughan Williams music he and his surviving family hid for 94 years but made available in publication 18 years ago.

From her future BPO, MacGregor promises ‘film music, folk, tango and jazz’. Her Piazzolla combined the latter two in one fell-swoop, constituting Coffee Concerts coup. JS Bach, I surmise, even inhabits MacGregor’s bathroom, let alone her sleep. She pointed up Bach’s impression on Piazzolla and Arvo Pärt, recalling Pärt inserting the C major Prelude from Bach’s 48 to create central calm in a big orchestral work (shades of, or maybe apologies to, organist Matthew Fisher’s ‘Repent Walpurgis’ composed for Procol Harum, 1967 – which Arvo may have known).

This concert advanced on November/March in more than just musical content. MacGregor spoke to camera. Not a conservatoire lecture but friendly natural presenting. Welcoming, relaxed, matter-of-fact informative background. Smiles, chuckles and an odd happily divulged trade secret, while turning around from her piano stool to introduce the Bach, Mozart, Pärt and Vaughan Williams. Yes, she’s exceptional, but we need more women feeling as confident taking this role in live situations.

Watching livestreaming, we now encounter television production values with the potential to hoist universally those of future live classical concerts. While also (pray heaven) softening away crusty formality, and puncturing any lingering self-regarding pomposity.

With a change of video production company to Apple & Biscuit Recordings came progress in camera work from the previous concert. Darkness and low-lit players in even better close-up, plus a wider view of MacGregor herself in action. Only one technical difficulty showed, which was screen pixilation where brightly coloured musical objects moved against the black background.

Another improvement was the reversed layout, facing upstage with the distant auditorium perimeter alcoves lit in pale fiery red as a soft-focus background. This scored in atmospheric intimate setting, beneficially closer acoustic, this time without the feeling of an empty auditorium.

Our musicians came in informal in black, MacGregor’s mane in chestnut, and with one swift inhalation their Bach leapt out like a jack-in-the box into the morning. Breathless, bristling, ebullient, they took this hyperactive music rattling and tumbling down the street.

They paused for the short middle slow movement, index fingers to lips . . . “Whoops! Shhhh! Forgot, it’s Sunday . . . the church is at prayer”. They knelt in respect, then tiptoed out in a smooth extended cadence, and cavorted off towards the hostelry in finger and toe-tapping tempo. All recklessly unbounded lifted-Lockdown behaviour!

The string quartet’s Mozart coupled his Rococo with JS baroque. Weeks ago, could this item have been scheduled on a subliminal inkling that the day before performance may have been the funeral of a famous personage? They gave us sobering beauty only 18 hours after The Duke of Edinburgh’s unique national farewell.

By now we were breathing air exceptionally vibrant, and poignantly apposite. Then the bearded Thomas Gould, MacGregor and Pärt stopped the clock. ‘Brethren’ was its title, theme and eight variations its scheme, ringing bells its voice, and this instrumental version from 1980 (thanks for that info, Chris Darwin, author, programme notes) creates an octagonal window on different ways the violin can be played to sound, and the resonances the deep piano can generate. Paused cross-fades from two cameras visually united the two musicians in subtle sympathy and symmetry.

How could something so controlled and mainly subdued become so exciting? Moreover, what could follow it? Was MacGregor now up a blind alley? Yes. But wait – the building up at the end is an Argentine Tango dance dive . . .

After Astor Piazzolla’s death 19 years ago, his original band thrived on, and MacGregor guest-toured as their pianist – imbibing the ropes, the riffs, the chord changes, the licks. She arranged these three numbers for herself and the five strings. The music’s exclusively hers to perform because she can semi-busk the piano part from memory: there is no manuscript. Piazzolla’s getting lots of performance time now but when MacGregor does him, even without bandoneon(s), you get Piazzolla straight from the horse’s mouth.

It’s a fast, jazzy beefsteak bolero, then coolest-cool bass in the central parting lovers’ dance. A rhythm section on the low open piano strings launches the trademark piece of tango’s stylistic liberation under this composer. Glissando final flourishes fling us into the interval. After this, a live audience might refuse to return for anything but more of the same. But the string quartet would have won them over with an attentive and alluring rendition of Purcell/Britten. Multi-centennial Britishness and stately solemnity renewed the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’s gone’ feeling.

Introducing Vaughan Williams’ suppressed Piano Quintet, MacGregor acknowledged the young composer’s Brahms and Wagner influences in the finale. To head off prejudicial comparisons he’d locked the work away. But these days, perceived Beethovenian influences for example, over, say, Schumann and Berlioz, or Wagner’s over Debussy or Delius, indicates historical context and eases a listener’s grasp of the music, inviting deeper acquaintance.

MacGregor could have popularly trundled out The Trout Quintet, along safe paving, but told us the RVW was Thomas Gould’s idea. So we got something informative and rewarding, especially in our expectations from the under-exploited viola in our chamber music. RVW’s favourite solo instrument, Sasha Bota his messenger, confirmed its readiness, its expressive voice and its automatic enrichment of its surroundings – given a championing composer.

Could RVW and Schubert become Quintet concert bedmates? It needs advocacy like this.

Brighton Dome and Festival chief executive Andrew Comben, a main architect of these concerts, began the morning by hoping that, with the Brighton Festival commencing its indoor audiences from 17 May, this would be the last Dome concert with none. We hope fate is not tempted.

Richard Amey