JAM on the Marsh: sounds of the sea and storm

United KingdomUnited Kingdom JAM on the Marsh – Aviss, Barber, Bartók, Bingham & Mealor: John Frederick Hudson (pianist), London Mozart Players / Michael Bawtree (conductor), St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, 15.8.2020. (CS)

John Frederick Hudson

Peter AvissThe Seafarer
BarberAdagio for strings
Bartók – Romanian Folk Dances Sz.56
Judith BinghamThe Hythe (commissioned by JAM 2012)
Paul Mealor – Piano Concerto (world premiere – commissioned jointly by JAM and the North Wales International Music Festival 2020)

JAM on the Marsh is an annual multi-arts festival which, each July, spans the Romney Marsh, with concerts and exhibitions taking place in the Marsh’s celebrated medieval churches.  In 2020, inevitably, audiences and art lovers have been invited not to Dungeness, Dymchurch and Hythe but to the digital highways, with three exhibitions and nine concerts – given by The Gesualdo Six, Onyx Brass, pianist Rachel Fryer, organist Daniel Cook, Green Opera, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, and the London Mozart Players – screened live and made available to view for 30 days.

The final concert of the festival, performed in St Leonard’s Church in Hythe by the London Mozart Players conducted by Michael Bawtree, opened, fittingly, with a work by Romney Marsh-based composer-conductor, Peter Aviss: The Seafarer for string orchestra.  (A disclosure: as a member of Oare String Orchestra, which Aviss co-founded in 1982, I performed in the premiere of The Seafarer in January 2010, under Aviss’s baton.)  The sprung rhythms of the strings’ open-fifths burst forth in the opening bars, initiating driving rhythmic and motivic patterns which evoked the heave and swell of the ocean – fitful and fierce, fickle and free.  There’s a certain ‘Englishness’ about Aviss’s muscular rhythmic currents and richly tonal harmonic language, and an ardent melodism coursed through the various string sections, opening up into expansive counterpoint.  The Seafarer embodies the ocean’s capriciousness, surge escalating into storm then just as suddenly subsiding, still waters streaming smoothly before surface ripples spill into rip currents, and Bawtree shaped the transitions skilfully.  A moment of repose was followed by a kaleidoscopic expanse of gloriously divided strings.  The Seafarer’s undercurrents never really rest but at the close there is a certain calm – a shimmering brightness and luxurious ease – and Aviss, an experienced sailor himself, will surely have appreciated the quiet confidence of the LMP’s final drift towards the horizon.

That gleaming tapestry of divided string voices was heard again in Barber’s Adagio.  This enduring favourite was performed with equanimity and refinement.  A flowing tempo ensured that the unfolding, intertwining lines rolled forth with the naturalness of measured breathing.  Melody and countermelody were persuasively balanced, the conversing lines coming together in a shining climax which, following a brief silence, gave way to gently sighing shadows.  Bawtree sought Romantic richness rather than folky robustness in Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances Sz.56, encouraging a sumptuous tone from the LMP string players in the opening Jocul cu bâtă (Stick Dance) and a warm pizzicato to accompany leader Simon Blendis’s relaxed, graceful solo in the ensuing Brâul (Sash Dance).  Pe loc (In One Spot) was ‘cooler’ and drier in tone, both melancholy and mysterious; Blendis sang soulfully in Buciumeana (Dance from Bucsum), inviting the other fiddlers into his lament.  After such elegance, the Polka exploded with heart-thumping Romanian vigour, the strings’ unwavering opulence tinged with a firm ‘bite’.  The musical momentum swept the players segue into the concluding Mărunțel (Fast Dance) which raced to an exuberant close.

Then, it was back to the sea.  Judith Bingham’s The Hythe for eleven solo strings, commissioned by JAM in 2012, evokes the spirit of ‘returning’ – of the sailor to the haven of the harbour, of the soul to God.  In the first movement, uneasily shifting harmonic colours alternated with aspiring, rising melodic wisps that grew in strength and sureness, blossoming rhythmically and texturally, driven by an ever more insistent pulsing, heard first in the bass, then in the inner voices.  Bawtree conjured restless energy in the following movement, the strings injecting vigour into their lithe rhythms, conversing dynamically, and an irresistible force streamed through the final movement, propelling the musical and metaphorical journey persuasively to its conclusion.

The concert concluded with the world premiere of Paul Mealor’s Piano Concerto, performed by soloist John Frederick Hudson.  Mealor describes his Concerto – a single twenty-minute movement comprising three contrasting sections – as reflecting the sounds of the marsh: “the sound of the seagulls which woke me up each morning can be heard in the strings as high glissandi in the middle section and even Storm Dennis – which I experienced – can be heard in the loud, rumbling piano cadenza which starts the second section of the piece.”  A pure soundwave, still and brooding, emanated from a singing bowl, evoking a grey dawn light, broken only by a gentle cymbal shimmer.  Then, the violins’ sustained whispers were joined by a crystalline piano bell, a single note which gradually expanded into an oscillating third, the heartbeat of the day waking and quickening.  Colours splashed lightly, then erupted in a shower of brightness.

The movement’s main theme is unapologetically Romantic – the rushing piano cascades and swirlings, against sustained velvety strings, put me in mind of Michael Nyman’s film score for The Piano.  Its retreat back to its beginnings leads to an extended cadenza for the piano soloist, through which the oscillating pulse of the day continues, and which Hudson played with lucidness and unaffected eloquence.  Mealor initially focuses on the piano’s upper octaves, with urgent chords and ripples supported by quiet, silvery string chords and echoed by tubular bells.  But the underlying pulsing becomes more menacing, pushing the piano down into its stormy depths in a thunderous display of the firmament’s anger.  In the final section, the string-playing was buoyant and animated, while Hudson evinced cool virtuosity as the violent tensions and percussive abrasiveness accrued, the movement finally burning itself out with an explosive lightning crack.

Claire Seymour

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