For my second experience of this year’s Brighton Festival I went last night to the Brighton Dome Concert Hall to see a show called KlezMahler. I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for when I turned up but it turned out to be great fun and I’m glad I went.
The first half of the concert featured the Aurora Orchestra. Their main item was Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. I’ve heard this symphony played live before, but not quite like this. The Aurora Orchestra numbers only fifteen musicians: two violins, and one each of viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, timpani and percussion. The arrangement for this “Chamber Orchestra” was done by Ian Farrington.
The result was fascinating and illuminating. Gone of course were the lush string textures and towering crescendi of a full symphony orchestra. A small force simply can’t hope to generate that kind of experience. On the other hand, what one gets in compensation is the ability to hear much more clearly how the piece is put together because everything is so much crisper. It must be very demanding to play a symphony like this, as each invidual instrument is very exposed, but these musicians have a very good account of the work. In places I found myself uncomfortable with the balance between different sections and the lack of oomph sometimes made it all sound rather tinny, but by and large I found it very interesting. I still prefer the bigger orchestral sound, but I did learn a lot from this “Mahler Light” arrangement. It was, however, a bit like being presented with an X-ray when you thought you were going to get a photograph!
The third movement of Mahler’s first symphony includes a section in which he produces the sound of a Jewish Klezmer band, which gives a hint as to how this piece fits in with the rest of the programme. Preceding Mahler 1 in the first half of the concert was a piece for solo clarinet (Fantasie by Widmann) and a traditional Doina from Romania (a form of improvised funereal lament) again played on a solo clarinet, this time situated offstage in the circle. The latter piece was particularly moving and well played.
After the interval we heard the She’Koyokh Klezmer Music Ensemble, who treated us to some traditional Klezmer music as well as other folk music from Eastern Europe. In fact their opening number, if I recall correctly, was from Turkey and it featured the very distinctive vocal style of Sigem Aslan. They played with great veuve and vitality and not inconsiderable virtuosity too. There was even an audience singalong in the middle. Some way into their set they were joined by members of the Aurora Orchestra. I felt that adding more musicians had the effect of somehow diffusing the impact of the original band, giving it a little less bite. That’s not to say however that the music wasn’t enjoyable because it certainly was!
There’s a taster of their style on this video:
It’s probably now obvious what the idea behind the concert was. Here it is as stated in the programme:
Iain Farrington’s dazzling chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, placed alongside a selection of klezmer and folk music performed by members of Aurora and She’koyokh, reveals the musical influences and inspirations behind Mahler’s masterpiece with new clarity. This will be an evening of insight and inspiration, eloquence and exuberance.
For my money it certainly succeeded in its aim. Bravo KlezMahler!
Incidentally, as a Jazz fan, I’ve often wondered about the influence that Klezmer might have had on the musical development of clarinettists like Benny Goodman. Here’s an example of his playing when he was young:
The opening of this does sound to me very Klezmery. What do you think?