Friday, 21 March 2014

Review: The Bristol Ensemble with Chloe Hanslip, conducted by Ben Gernon

Northern Lights Series: The Bristol Ensemble, conducted by Ben Gernon with Chloe Hanslip (violin)
The Colston Hall, Bristol.
Thursday 20th March 2014

Stop The Clocks.
This changes everything.

We're here to hear Finlandia Op 26, Violin Concerto in D minor Op47 and Symphony no.5 in E flat Op82 by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
I don't know much about classical music, or  the conventions of watching it, but I'm interested and willing to learn.
(I don't make the comment about this being my favourite slave trade-funded concert hall, because I've made that comment the last ten times I've been here, and it's getting old, even for me.)

From the first strains of the opening movement, I am gripped.
I'm not really sure what a conductor does, but I've heard it said their role is like that of a DJ.  If so, tonight a DJ saved my life.  With just the aid of violins, violas, cellos, basses, drums, percussion, trumpets, French horns, clarinets, flutes, bassoons, trombones and a few others, all expertly played.

Musical terms are always Italian, I know that much.  I don't know what 'Adagio di molto' means, but I would translate it as Fucking Astonishing.  That's what I said when that bit finished.  I was absolutely blown away, shot to pieces by it.

There's that thing violinists do, when they play very fast but very soft - I think it's called vibrato.  It looks like they're not playing at all, and at first I look around to see what's being played, it's hard to tell.
It's the kind of sound I've found on a synth and enjoyed; the difference between that and the real thing is the difference between a pot noodle on a grey morning in a stuffy office and fresh stir fry on a beach in Thailand.  At sunset.  With a cold beer.  And everyone you love in attendance.

There really is nothing that comes close to this sound.  I've seen plenty of gigs, and some really moving ones.  The Bristol Ensemble and tonight's soloist/conductor now join Stevie Wonder, Men Diamler (and one or two others on a short list), who have actually broken me down to the level of an infant - no, a baby.  I feel like I'm being cradled by the sound the fifty-seven (yes, 57) people on stage are making.

It's quite an experience, I recommend trying it, if you can.  (Some people I know would balk at the price and the rarefied atmosphere, but at just under thirty quid you might have to pay a lot more to see a lot less. And I'd be happy if every crowd for a group playing complex and intense music was this quiet and respectful.  Still, it's half-full tonight, so maybe word hasn't got around...)

At one point, I hear some whispering behind me.  I hear it, but I don't turn round.  I'm enraptured here, I'm not stressing about a couple of people discussing the show or passing sweets around or whatever.  Still, if they got dragged off kicking and screaming to a labour camp for talking out of turn, I wouldn't even look up from the bassoon player.

Why is no one clapping?
There's an awkward shuffling, a few people cough, the musicians shift in their chairs, the world-renowned violinist smiles politely.  They're not surprised, and no one even claps by accident, thereby breaking the unspoken rule.  I want to, but I don't.  I go with the convention.  I'm disappointed in myself, but only slightly.  I'm out of my element here, I'll go with the flow.

At half-time, I am excited but slightly drained - there's adrenaline, but it's all under the surface as I decide what to write about it (I never rest).  I've spent most of the first half both concentrating on the present moment and considering some of the many possibilities it evokes...
Meanwhile, Eeva says it all makes her think about Finland, and gets a text from her (Finnish) Mum: "Your Grandad had to shoot a Russian soldier who broke his promise not to try to escape.  He was never the same after that."

The second half is just as intricate, still intense, but doesn't have me on the edge of my seat like the first half did.  The difference is that the star soloist is gone, and so is the lad at the back with the cymbals (and one or two others, hard to tell when there's this many of them), although the one with the three massive drums is still there.

There's all that classical stuff that happens (dramatic bursts, slow build-up, sudden key changes) but the whole thing is more like a long song - it is dramatic, it does swell and break, but the pace seems to stay up all the way through, which is unlike most of the classical stuff I've heard, most of which has got a fast bit then a slower bit then it goes quiet then it gets VERY LOUD for a short while and then goes off  on a tangent and then comes back to the first melody but in a minor key or something and then....well, you know.

I have heard people who, having seen a virtuoso playing (be it guitar, piano, or anything else) and said something like "I might as well give up - I'll never be as good as that."  This is easily the most depressing thing I have ever heard after a gig, and I've heard it several times.  Personally, seeing something like this makes me want to go home and play all the instruments I can get hold of and just keep playing and playing.  And then write music for all of them.

Near the end, a motif develops and repeats.  It's familiar.  It's only the intro to Since Yesterday by Strawberry Switchblade, isn't it?  Seriously.  Go and look it up, I'll wait.  Or better yet, just click here.

Anyway, it turns out that at a classical gig, everyone claps loads at the start, and loads and loads at the end and not at all in between, even when a movement finishes with a rousing crescendo.  OK then.

This has helped to re-fire the passion for music (it never stopped, I just lost focus on it for a while - not now, mind).  The whole experience is difficult to describe, almost ineffable - and I'm quite articulate.
Aw, shucks, I don't know much about classical music, but I knows beauty when I hears it, goshdarnit.
And this was fucking beautiful.  Ethereal.  Transcendent, even.

As we leave, everyone's humming the intro to Since Yesterday...I'm thinking about what to write, as I sing it to myself:

"Just close your eyes and then remember
The thoughts you've locked away,
When tomorrow comes you'll wish you had today."

Night Night.

Clayton Blizzard

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