Reviews of the best classical and jazz concerts of November 2022 in Britain
It’s hard to think of a lead man less likely than a tuba, musical monster of the deep, more at home clowning sadly from the back of a marching band. So it was a sight to see London Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Ben Thomson sitting center stage, his body almost completely obscured by the instrument’s chaotic tangle of tubing, only his fingers visible sliding over the keys, jumping feverishly and into the vast range of this soulful beast. We were nearing the climax of the UK premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Tuba Concerto – hand on heart, the most beautiful tuba concerto I have ever heard.
Loud, slightly sarcastic applause greeted Thomson at the start, with the expectation that we were about to witness the musical equivalent of a fat man attempting a pirouette. No longer deceive us. For this leviathan could not only sing as softly as any songbird, he could flirt and fly, flapping his hippopotamus eyelids, gliding through his melodies with as much grace and airiness as Fred Astaire.
Thomson might even duet with himself, floating multiphonics above his bass sound, humming along while playing. Around him, Marsalis – recognized jazzer and main mobilizer of the revival of bebop – launched the orchestra on a casual, jerky, heavily syncopated journey. Expertly balanced by bandleader William Long, the Latin-tinged LSO’s dissonant crunch and percussive funk acted as the perfect foil for the tuba’s warm flow.
How much you enjoyed the concerto depended on your tolerance for the inevitable wince of watching an orchestra liven things up. Next to the night’s other UK premieres, however, the work looked almost sophisticated.
Joel Thompson’s To Awaken a Sleeper and Carlos Simon’s Portrait of a Queen were basic musical evocations of tart, over-the-nose lyrics about black suffering told in an elevated theatrical style by Willard White and Eska, respectively. If the composers had taken the stage and shouted “Feel sad!”, “Now angry!”, “Now hopeful!”, it would have been hardly less subtle. That said, the conductor André J Thomas received a big generous sound from the LSO (it would be necessary to book him to conduct Berlioz or Puccini). And it was hard to resist the cumulative force of the sensual and slow second movement of the contagious AMEN! of Simon!.
But it was a night you never would have known the last 80 years of classical songwriting had happened. The idiom of the three composers was barely inches from that of George Gershwin. There was a time when the LSO understood why you might want to diversify your pool of composers. Engaging composers from alternative traditions and cultures was about creating space for new sonic possibilities, about aesthetic diversity. Listen, for example, to the extraordinary and dark Skies of America by free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, commissioned by the orchestra 50 years ago and shamefully never performed. We are far from Sunday evening.
Marsalis, Thompson and Simon may all be African American, but they all engage in a chillingly regressive aesthetic. Diversity today is no longer about finding new, visionary ways to make art, but about reviving and rooting old, safe organizations. The irony is that conservative Scrutonites have nothing to fear from any of this. Those who care about the avant-garde and the need to nurture original voices should be much more concerned. Igor Toronyi-Lalic