The Budapest Café Orchestra – Stock Characters from a Commedia dell’arte

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Budapest Café Orchestra [Chris Garrick (violin), Eddie Hession (accordion), Kelly Cantlon (double bass), Adrian Zolotuhin (guitar, saz, balalaika, dorma)], Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 27.3.2015. (LJ)

For what the Budapest Café Orchestra lacked in originality and repertoire, they made up for in showmanship. Decorating their set with lamps, alternating between blue and warm orange lighting, and relying heavily on the showmanship of their frontman (Chris Garrick), The Budapest Café Orchestra’s performance on Friday night was a curious admixture of kitsch, light-hearted gypsy-jazz and outmoded sentimentality (or ‘fromage’, as Garrick called it).

Comprised of a patchwork quilt of ‘alternate-versions’ and pastiches, the set was a kaleidoscopic miss-match of styles and strengths. At times, the band played with verve and zest, thrilling the audience with a their Hungarian czardas and Gaelic folksongs, but these moments seemed short-lived as imitations of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor was clumsily arranged for accordion and excerpts of the Godfather Theme and 007’s corny soundtrack seeped into their performances. This odd amalgamation of classical, folk and film; sweeping across East to West Europe made for a disorientating array of sounds that often jarred with a backdrop of sentimental ooze.

When Garrick was asked ‘who are your heroes?’ it came as hardly a surprise that he answered by saying: “Loads, and from all different places too, so I’ll just list a few at random: Freddie Mercury, Mark Cavendish, Jascha Heifeits, Keith Floyd, Harpo Marx, Charlie Parker.” The blinding omission from this list seems to be Márk Rózsavölgyi, Hungarian composer and violinist, often called ‘the father of czardas’. Indeed, expecting an hour of czardas (a term derived from the old Hungarian word for ‘tavern’, now used to describe an Eastern European style of folk dance) with an exciting variation in tempo (from slow ‘lassu’ to fast ‘friss’), the Budapest Café Orchestra, was more ‘café’ than ‘Budapest’. Perhaps a variation upon a theme of Liszt’s Czardas macabre, S. 224 (1881-2) would have elicited more interest than Misirlou (made famous by Dick Dale and the Deltones, used in Quentin Tarantino’s cult film Pulpfiction). A little more fiery instinctiveness so often associated with the Gypsy, would give the Budapest Café Orchestra a bit of much needed natural ease and flair. As Liszt stated: ‘It is impossible to imagine a more complete fusion with nature than that of the Gypsy.”

In short, Chris Garrick formed the improvisatory centre of the band often playing in response to Eddie Hession on the accordion, as well as shouting ‘hey’ and stomping his feet in an exaggerated manner. Hession was electrifyingly fast on the accordion which contrasted with Kelly Cantlon’s plodding rhythm on the double bass. Lastly, Adrian Zolotuhin was both the most humorous and interesting performer, if only for his use of a variety of instruments. Where interpretation was missing, characterisation was ever-present in their stage names alone. Balkan Bob (violin), The Dragon (accordion), Kelvin the Klaw (double bass), and The Sultan (guitars) charmed the audience with their quick wit and easy-listening style.

Whilst all musicians had a degree of agility, a great dose of humour (though at times slightly risqué), and a snazzy collection of charity-shop ties, there was a desperate lack of technical ability and even repertoire. Upon being called out for a second encore, a panic-stricken Garrick stammered: ‘what can we play?” If you’re expecting something reminiscent of Django Reinhart or Stephane Grappelli, or even an alternative to Nigel Kennedy’s Kroke Band, you will be sadly disappointed with what the Budapest Café Orchestra has to offer. However, for a fun evening out with some toe-tapping tunes, a generous helping of wise-cracking jokes and exaggerated call-and-response playing; this is the band for you. Sadly, on this occasion, the Budapest Café Orchestra left me wanting more music and less theatricality.

Lucy Jeffery

1 thought on “The Budapest Café Orchestra – Stock Characters from a Commedia dell’arte”

  1. Were you at the same gig as me?? If you were and you stand by your comments then you cannot have been watching or listening coherently! Very strange report indeed. The BCO are pure entertainment and any performance by them is a joy and a tonic precisely because of their original presentational style – never taking themselves too seriously – never submitting to the humdrum and always offering a dynamic, engaging and unpredictable range of repertoire. Sounds like you went bringing so many preconceptions and expectations of your own that you forgot to enjoy the BCO for what it is: uniquely refreshing in an increasingly bland musical world.


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