#BRISTOLPROMS: Day 4 Part 1 – Alistair Debling, Jonathan James & Dave Yapp

Blogger Alistair Debling on his final #BRISTOLPROMS performance:

Sacconi Quartet and Guy Johnston, photography by SWNS

In a week of experiments, from the reintroduction of the standing pit and the collaborations between musicians and visual artists, to singing in the dark and the famous “no shushing” rule, it wouldn’t be a #BRISTOLPROMS concert without Tom Morris (the Willy Wonka in Bristol’s own Chocolate Factory) throwing something a little out of the ordinary into the mix. Tonight, the Sacconi Quartet returned after their late night partnership with Jon Boden earlier in the week, this time enlisting the help of cellist Guy Johnston in order to play Schubert’s famous String Quintet in C. Before the main proceedings, however, the quintet spread out into the auditorium and the audience was invited to close their eyes and picture a moment of great change. The musicians began to experiment, testing out different motifs as audience members would affirm “yes” if what they heard matched the images in their heads. With a repertoire of popular motifs memorised, the musicians regrouped on stage to perform a dream-like and evocative improvisation in an admirable display of their collective sensitivity and musicianship.

After the interval, the experiments did not let up as a few lucky audience members (myself included!) were allowed to sit on stage just inches away from the musicians, for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience of Schubert’s most loved quintet. It was such a privilege to be so close to the players, to be initiated into their sweetly harmonious family. Every page turn, every nod, every flick of the bow was revealed – as if it were suddenly possible to view classical music in high definition. It was the perfect way to end my experience at the proms, even though I am sad not to be able to see the rest of the programme. It has been a tremendously exciting and innovative week, with personal highlights being Hauschka and Max Richter, and I can’t wait to find out what musical mischief and trickery is in store for the #BRISTOLPROMS 2014.

Alistair Debling is a graduate of Bristol Old Vic’s Made in Bristol programme and is currently studying at Harvard University in the USA.

Music Educator Jonathan James on Sacconi Quartet and Guy Johnston, performing for #BRISTOLPROMS on Day 4:

Sacconi Quartet and Guy Johnston with audience members on stage, photography by SWNS

In comparison to last night, the Schubert quintet represents the other end of the emotional spectrum, a transition from classical pops to one of the most intimate, heartfelt pieces in the chamber repertoire.  I had just come out of my talk on the piece, head buzzing, and I needed somewhere to decompress.  Tom’s opening improvisation gave the perfect space for that.  It was playful yet telling, helping us to connect to the performers as people and artists, and, importantly, for them to connect to us through their playing alone. I’m sure it helped people really listen in to their individual sound and gestures.  I’ve done this kind of free improv exercise many times in the classroom, often with rather recalcitrant teenagers.  That challenge pales into nothing when compared to the task last night of engaging a very mixed and large audience that reached from pit to upper dress circle.  But Tom Morris has a winning way and an open-heartedness that people can’t fail but to respond to.  Those who resisted were in the real minority. 

The quintet itself was played with a Viennese lightness of touch that brought out many subtleties that I hadn’t heard before.  I was struck by how well the sound works in the Theatre acoustic.  Accents bite the ear and you can feel the grit of horsehair on string.  The soft colours carry beautifully as well, and it was in this palette that The Sacconi Quartet particularly excelled, to my ears at least.  How well they held the stillness of the slow movement and of the trio, how exquisitely they finished their phrases!  There was a great sense of line and the longer build-ups were handled masterfully also, bringing out the high drama of the music.  Here a real intensity was summoned when required, but the music also sung and danced in equal measure, the spirit of Schubert in every bar.

I had the pleasure of meeting the quartet after the show, and they seem really to get on with each other – and it shows, with the superb Guy Johnston being a natural extension to their sound.  This close-blended sound they’ve developed is a real testimony to over a decade of playing together, winning competitions and playing in top venues across the world.  It was a treat to have them here in Bristol.  You had to agree with the leader Ben when he refused an encore.  The Schubert quintet is a huge mountain for any ensemble, and climbing it requires immense stamina and complete emotional commitment.  After such a journey with so many views, what is left to say?

Jonathan James is a music educator, conductor and writer: www.jonathanpjames.com. 

Proms Ambassador Dave Yapp on the fourth night of #BRISTOLPROMS:

For our fourth night of the #BRISTOLPROMS, we were treated to our very own Schubertiad (granted it was only one piece but it was definitely the focus of the night).

First, we were given the complete lowdown on Schubert and his final quintet by Jonathan James, local musicologist, conductor, music director and general musical encyclopedia.  You can listen to this Schubert quintet with no knowledge of his life’s work, his situation at the time of writing it and the musical techniques that he utilised, and you’ll still marvel at it’s beauty but I’m of the opinion that these details will allow you to appreciate it on a wholly different level.  Most people in the audience had no idea what a neapolitan chord is (I’m guessing), and we were fortunate enough to get a layman’s description as well as a musicologist’s, but Mr James was able to enlighten us as to why these chords sound so dramatically beautiful.

 

Jonathan James presenting ‘Schubert’s Secrets’, photography by SWNS

Then, the main event.  Before the Schubert, we were treated to an exclusive experiment developed by Tom Morris and the Sacconi Quartet at the Aldeburgh Festival previously.  This involved the Quintet (Sacconi Quartet and Guy Johnston) improvising while reading the audience’s faces.  What this highlighted for me was that classical musicians can improvise.  And very well.  I suppose it’s not surprising given that their musical language is drawn from the vast repertoire that they hold in their heads but I felt that this was an idea that could definitely be extended.  Maybe there could be a late prom next year which highlighted classical improvisation. I’d definitely go. Anyway, after the interval, the Schubert was upon us.  Audience members surrounding the quartet.  Cameras pointing all over the place to catch our facial responses to the music (I stayed in the pit even though there was a GoPro directly facing me).  This was another intense musical experience.  Beautiful playing from the Sacconi Quartet (who I’m now going to follow avidly) and our appreciation of the music was definitely enhanced by the earlier words of Jonathan James.

Fantastic.

For more information about #BRISTOLPROMS, click here.

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