FringeReview UK 2021
Imagine persuading the country’s premier brass ensemble to come to Eastbourne, stand on a roof and play a mixture of classical and newly composed work. Then, just to make it more difficult, add in specially created 3D Art to provide a visual representation of the key themes. While you’re at it, why not incorporate a live TV feed into the art?
Then, when you’ve done that, seat an audience of 450 at ground level, pray that the weather behaves, that the seagulls take the day off and that the audience can hear every note.
Well, you’ve got to do something during lockdown.
So, Clive Whitburn did just that.
Before I go any further, here is a disclaimer. I am not musical, I have no affinity for music, and I am unable to play an instrument or read music. This means this isn’t the type of show I’d usually go to. However, Paul Levy says I should review shows outside of my comfort zone. Well, here goes!
My interest in this piece comes from the creation of something unique. It piques my curiosity. This is a one-off performance. The production obstacles mean it’s highly improbable that Clive will get to do this again. On top of that, it is a little bit bonkers.
From a producers perspective, as you run down the list of challenges imposed by the vision behind the creation of the piece and the practicalities of staging this on the roof of a theatre to a live audience, you have an interesting and complex puzzle.
It would be so much easier to remove all the risks and stage this in a purpose-built concert hall. However, such mundane thinking does not reflect Clive’s intent.
Hat’s off to Harry Farmer and his team for producing a well thought, carefully constructed and orchestrated performance. You can always tell when the production values hit the mark, no one notices.
The programme consisted of classical pieces from Johannes Bach, Dimitri Shostakovitch and Matthew Arnold. These were succeeded by modern compositions from Charlotte Harding and Jason Rebello, with the highlight of the evening being a new composition from Clive Whitburn.
Onyx Brass are Britain’s top-rated brass ensemble. They have a staggering list of credits, plaudits and are in constant demand. To my untutored ear, this performance seemed faultless. The sound was deep, rich and played with confidence, and their timing was perfect. They are clearly excellent at what they do.
This was no mean feat. With the wind blowing, simply keeping the music in place was a struggle. Hastily collected clothes pegs were involved! The inquisitive seagulls, the remoteness of the audience and the fading light increased the degree of difficulty.
From an audience perspective, these factors are irrelevant. The experience of listening to brass music in this setting creates an unusual acoustic experience. Although the sound is amplified and perfectly clear, it is different. Reflecting off the hard surfaces of the buildings and dissipating across the tennis courts, the tone and timbre shift. Rather than feeling an overwhelming flood of music, there is a clarity to the listening experience.
A live music performance places you close to the source. This means you experience the music in different ways. Partly as sound passing through your ear into your brain, but also as a physical experience in your body. It makes the heart beat faster and in time to the rhythm, your chest vibrates, your heart works harder and your blood flows faster. You can sense this happening in those. This, in part, is why volume matters and why live music is so popular. This was different, by distancing the musicians, the way we listened to the music changed.
As for the music, itself. We started with a rousing fanfare, by James Maynard. Stirring and brash, this set the scene and woke us up! Welcome to the show!
Next up came Bach and Shostakovich. These pieces were how I’d imagine classical brass to sound. They seem familiar, with an innate ‘rightness’. Not ground breaking nor revolutionary, a little old fashioned. If I were watching a period drama with big dresses, wigs and courtly intrigue, this is the sort of music I’d expect to hear.
Between each piece, a member of Onyx Brass explained the history of the piece, how it was put together and what to listen out for. Each speaker was confident, knowledgeable and fun. For example, one told an amusing anecdote about a piano competition at which Shostakovich was a judge. Had my music teachers been like this, I may have developed more of an interest in music. It surprised me to find this fascinating.
This was followed by Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Quintet No 1. One of the 20th Century’s most famous and prolific composers, his composition introduced new form and energy to the programme. The music seemed like a musical version of an animated conversation, with calls and responses that grow in volume and intensity. The final movement is called ‘Con Brio’, and this is an accurate reflection of its lively nature.
Once again, when listening to the music, one has the sense of listening to a film score. Given that Sir Matthew composed for many Hollywood films, this is perhaps unsurprising. Hearing it, so soon after the Bach and Shostakovich, you can hear the difference. Even an untutored ear can understand that this is more modern than the earlier work.
This theme, old v modern, is reflected in the last two pieces.
This was only the second performance of Charlotte Harding’s latest composition. Called ‘Rhombus’, it was inspired by a trip to New York and is best described as ‘bluesy’. Although very different in style and tone, it also draws clear links to popular film culture. There are strong notes of Hollywood Film Noir. You almost expect Humphrey Bogart to walk out in a White Tuxedo, smoking a cigarette, and with a bump on his head. It evokes dark alleys, mean streets, rainy nights and smoky bars. It is edgy, gritty and dark, I like it.
The first half draws to a close with Jason Rebello’s ‘Inevitable Outcome’. Written especially for the Onyx Brass, this piece provided a rousing end to the first half of the show. It swings back and forth, the instruments calling and answering each other in an intricate dance. The volume rises, and the players get to show off their considerable musical skills.
After the break, it is time for the showpiece. The first performance of Clive Whitburn’s ‘Music for Rooftops’. This is written specifically to be played on a roof!
There are three movements with a connected theme; Awakening, Lament, and Celebration. Each movement is augmented by Cliff Crawford’s artwork, shown on a screen suspended below the musicians.
Once the performance begins, it immediately feels more intense. The music seems louder, closer, more physical.
Movement One is entitled, ‘Awakening, Discovery, Awareness’. Now the link to movies, popular culture and everything we have heard before is broken. This is new, and we know it. The music rises in speed, complexity and intensity. We feel new life, new comprehension an enhanced sense of being.
Cliff Crawford is a visual artist, he works in VR, creating 3D images from continuous strings. The images change and flow, one into another. As we follow these lines and threads, characters emerge. Even though figures are drawn with one line and in a single colour, they become recognisable as they turn, resolving themselves into a whole. The images are clever and compelling.
Next, we have the ‘Lament for the Victims of Violence, Inequality, Poverty and Illness’. Fittingly, as the darkness draws in, the clouds cover the night sky. The lights surrounding the players, and the illumination from the building seem brighter, drawing us in.
The Lament is slower, it induces feelings of sadness. The mood shift follows the echoes of the score. It is not a depressing experience, but one that makes you aware that not everything is joy and light.
Whether planned or not, for the first time in the concert, the feeling of being outside is part of the performance. In the endless, empty blackness of space, we are this tiny beacon of light, sitting in a car park, listening to brass. I am reminded of a painting that reflects the vastness of the night sky, with two small figures sitting around a small campfire in a forest. It shows the vastness of the cold, empty, lifeless universe against the smallness and vulnerability of human life.
Meanwhile, Cliff draws us into a queue. We see a long line of people waiting for help and succour that may never come.
But Clive is a hopeful person, so the last movement is a ‘Celebration of Exuberence, Energy and Diversity’. And it is. This is loud, raucous, bold and brash. It’s full of life.
For me, the overriding energy is that of excited, eager children. Discordantly brilliant, it creates a cacophony. It reminds me of scores of eager children gathered round, all clamouring for attention. It builds and builds, the tempo rising and the excited jangling reminding you that you are alive. This is music that makes you happy.
When I agreed to review this show, I was apprehensive. This is out of my comfort zone. I appreciate the job Harry Farmer has done in producing this event, there is little here that is straightforward and simple. But I had no idea how to review this, so I began with what I knew.
But I feel that I’ve learnt something. I got to experience a unique event, that was staggering in its ambition and intention. Had I not been invited to review this, I would not have gone to see the Onyx Brass, and I would have missed out on something special. Paul was right, I should review things I am not used to!
As for Clive’s work, it offers something different. This is different to the brass that has gone before, it reflects who is as a person and a composer. Like all good art, it makes you feel; and think about how you feel, this is no small thing.
It is bold and brassy, and as one author would say, ‘it is some damn fine tooting!’