New concerto for jazz quartet and orchestra a triumph in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom CoLaboratory: Fiona Monbet (violin and conductor), Auxane Cartigny (piano), Zacharie Abraham (double bass), Philippe Maniez (drum kit), BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 19.10.2023. (PCG)

Fiona Monbet

SatieLa belle excentrique
TailleferrePetite Suite
MilhaudLe boeuf sur le toit
Bernstein – Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
Fiona MonbetFaubourg 23 (BBC NOW commission, world première)

The opening of this year’s concert season in Cardiff has been plagued with difficulties. Not least those was the abrupt closure of St David’s Hall after the discovery of structural defects in the roof . The even more recent news is that scheduled programmes at the venue have been postponed or cancelled for at least the next eighteen months. The capital of Wales has only one venue suitable for large-scale concerts. That has been a cause for concern for many years, and has now occasioned a real crisis with a scheduled performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. It had been intended to open the BBC NOW season, but has been cancelled. Another concert which I was intending to review was transferred to another location. This ‘CoLaboratory’ evening at the Hoddinott Hall was the first concert by the National Orchestra of Wales that I was able to attend since the summer. It was good to be back.

I am not sure what a ‘CoLaboratory’ is, but it appears to be an attempt at a fusion between two fields of musical endeavour, in this case, the well-known territory of crossover between classical and jazz. The first half of the programme showed the results of such an intermixture in the cosmopolitan world of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Ibert’s Divertissment originated as incidental music for a stage presentation of the farce The Italian straw hat (which Nino Rota later turned into a superbly delightful comic opera). Given here in its original scoring for chamber orchestra with single strings, it came across as more piquant than when played by a full body of players. Even the police whistle in the final movement blended comfortably into the spiky textures.

Satie’s La belle excentrique conjured up the atmosphere of the music hall in its three somewhat disjointed movements, and Tailleferre’s Little Suite was little indeed, hardly more than five minutes long but packed with incident. The scoring was curiously devoid of the jazz influences that so motivated the other members of Les Six. A rustic flavour seemed to bridge the worlds of Ravel and Pierné, and even unexpectedly approach some of the folksong arrangements of Percy Grainger.

In his larger-scale Le boeuf sur le toit, Milhaud blended his jazz rhythms with a whole variety of South American dances to often riotous effect. This score was a favourite of Leonard Bernstein’s, and the influences could still be detected in his rumbustious early dance episodes from On the town. The riotous final movement, longer than the first two combined, has syncopated variations on the original theme. It all looks forward a decade to West Side Story – and is if anything more uninhibited.

That was all a prelude to the highlight of the evening, the first performance of what the advance publicity had described as Suite for jazz trio and orchestra. Here it acquired the title Faubourg 23. In a spoken interview before the performance, the composer called it Faubourg vingt-trois. The announcer Linton Stephens said ‘twenty-three’. If the title was ever explained, I failed to catch it; I will return to this point later. What we were actually presented with was a full-scale single-movement concerto for jazz quartet (including solo violin) and orchestra. It lasted some half an hour, and covered a wide range of moods and episodes. And it worked superbly.

We began with an almost filmic opening, an impressionist wash of violin colour verging on the realm of Mantovani. That led into a pianistic rhapsody. Pianist Auxane Cartigny was joined slowly by the double-bassist Zacharie Abraham and the percussionist Philippe Maniez. The three men were isolated at the front of the stage. It was only after a considerable time that Fiona Monbet laid down her baton, picked up her amplified violin and bow, and joined the other three to make up a full jazz quartet. The orchestra participated in the development of the material in a series of episodes both lyrical and rhythmic, and even the police whistle made a reappearance.

Towards the end, the original trio had an extended and largely unaccompanied cadenza, with some particularly subtle combinations of colours. Next, the orchestra emerged with a Sibelius-like sunrise followed by a gloriously off-beat dance with a panache that reminded me of the giddy waltz from Khachaturian’s Masquerade. With yet another side-slip, this moved into the field of Irish dance. The concerto – for that is clearly what it is – came to a cheeky conclusion in which Monbet’s amplified violin competed in duet with the orchestral leader Lesley Hatfield. The sizeable audience greeted this conclusion with a roar of acclamation and a standing ovation, both fully deserved. The soloists responded with a jazz quartet improvisation on a tune by Charles Trenet by way of an encore.

The music was highly enjoyable in its own right, and there was no sense that its unity was compromised by the contrasts between diverse sections. Even so, I felt at times that there may well have been some underlying programme to all this. At any rate, the title of the piece and the clear Irish references at the end implied as much. But we were given no guidance on the matter, because the BBC had apparently decided that they could dispense with printed programmes. Instead, the audience got a link to information to access via mobile phones. Now, anything which encourages audiences to switch on their devices during the performance is surely something that anybody who broadcasts concerts should avoid like the plague. Quite apart from that, the notes that were provided on the BBC NOW website were perfunctory in the extreme. They did not even give the number of movements, for example in Satie’s suite, and that left the audience temporarily at a loss to know when to applaud. The BBC commentary on the live broadcast might have assisted, but for much of the time it was inaudible to the audience. A single sheet of information distributed in the hall merely gave a list of the orchestral players and the timings of the items – not even the dates of composition or any information about the composers.

The scheduled programme for the BBC NOW season is very enterprising, with a considerable number of world and British premieres. These works deserve to be heard – and hopefully enjoyed and applauded – by an informed audience, not one left in ignorance of the thoughts and intentions of their authors. The composers merit that much. In the recent years, the BBC have proved a model of rectitude and consideration in providing free programmes, texts and translations. They need urgently to reconsider their apparent volte-face in this matter. Interviewer Linton Stephens asked Fiona Monbet if the work had been written for these specific players. ‘Well yes’, she replied, ‘they commissioned it’. Indeed. But perhaps a little further support for a composition making its way in the world might not have come amiss. I am sure, nonetheless, that we have not heard the last of Faubourg 23.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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