To the Phil last night for an excellent concert, programmed by Joanna Macgregor and rightly entitled Mixing it Up, since it featured a couple of Bach concertos, a handful of Dowland lute songs,three tangos by Astor Piazzolla and gospel and blues from the American Deep South. And joining her on stage, as well as members of the Liverpool Philharmonic, was jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard.
In the programme notes, Joanna Wyld writes that it’s probable that Bach would have enjoyed the eclectic nature of the programme: “This was a man who delighted in taking existing forms and adapting them, renewing them with his own indelible musical imprint.He drew upon the music of his age, and shifted its content or context to create new effects.”
Joanna Macgregor studied the music at Cambridge University and completed a Masters with the Royal Academy of Music. This grounding is what led her to Bach, she told the Daily Post, and the two Clavier Concertos in last night’s concert. “The little F Minor is very elegant and light, and then the big D Minor is very driven and full of incredible rhythm,” she enthuses. Austrian composer Gustav Mahler once said: “In Bach, all the seeds of music are found.”
For me, the highlight of the first half was MacGregor’s arrangement of three songs by John Dowland, contemporary of Shakespeare, for piano, saxophone and strings. In ‘Forlorn Hope Fancy’ Andy Sheppard developed the melody on the saxophone and was picked up by the plucked double bass, first violin and second violin. “The thing about Dowland”, says Macgregor, ” is that it’s such a great landscape that you enter. It’s deeply melancholic, it’s dreamy, it’s bluesy in a completely new way.”
The second half began with Astor Piazzolla: his re-invention of the tango, interweaving modern jazz, classical and folkloric Latin music angered purists. MacGregor had arranged the pieces for piano and string quartet. The pieces were ‘Michelangelo 70’, which references the name of a Buenos Aires cafe where the composer’s quintet performed in the 70s; ‘Milonga del ángel’, composed for a play in which an angel walks among the people of a down-at-heel Argentinian suburb; and ‘Libertango’, which formed the basis of Grace Jones’s song, ‘I’ve Seen that Face Before’.
Then, with Andy Sheppard returning to the stage, the highlight of the show for us: Deep River – an arrangement of seven Gospel and blues songs that started life as their joint album in 2006. We saw them perform it at the RNCM in Manchester in March that year. In that performance they made use of electronica-style effects and sound loops. Last night, although three sound loops were still featured (the ghostly piano in ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, a guitar riff from the Alabama 3 in ‘Up Above My Head’ and the raw vocals of William and Versa Smith singing ‘Everbody Help The Boys Come Home’ in 1929), this time MacGregor had replaced the electronica with the RLPO strings:
“I’m going to play down that electronic aspect a bit, because I’ve got a new component that is this huge orchestra. It’ll bring a real rich resonance to the whole thing. But we’ll still retain some of those loops and, in particular, the loop of the Smiths (husband and wife duo William and Versey) singing in the 1920s, which is so evocative. It’s a rather scratchy, gritty piece of recording.”
The pieces featured were: ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, ‘Everbody Help The Boys Come Home’. ‘Deep River’, ‘Up Above My Head’, ‘Georgia Lee’, ‘The Mercy Seat’ and ‘What a Friend I Have in Jesus’. It was a spell-binding set, and the audience erupted into rapturous applause at the end, to which they responded with an encore of another track from Deep River, though sadly for us, not ‘Spiritual’, the truly outstanding track.
- Deep River: details and reviews