EIFF: “Driven”

“Charming style and notable ambition.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Here is a film with charming style and notable ambition, if a few roughshod elements, which fits together well and features some seriously impressive acting. Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Driven takes its time building up to the central intrigue, and it it time well spent. Director Nick Hamm makes good use of his excellent cast, including the endlessly charismatic Jason Sudeikis, an amusingly dour Corey Stoll, a very game-faced Judy Greer, and the standout Lee Pace, who turns in a masterful performance as the legendary figure John DeLorean.

As a fictional piece, this film might face some criticism that its plot is busy and potentially too odd for its own good. But as writer Colin Bateman’s script is based on a series of very real, yet hard-to-believe events, Driven ends up earning an air of true-crime intrigue that holds the audience’s interest well. We follow James Hoffman (Sudeikis), a pilot and family man who may or may not have engaged in drug smuggling in Bolivia as the film begins; he is nabbed by a stone-faced special agent, played by Stoll, who sets up a deal with Hoffman to bring down some big-name drug lords in exchange for a cushy life in California. By chance, the house to which the Hoffmans are relocated is across the street from the man, the myth, the legend John DeLorean, so smoothly masculine that he easily charms all he meets. Hoffman quickly grows close to DeLorean, a relationship which the car designer appreciates more and more as his ambitious dream of crafting “the perfect car” becomes less and less straightforward. There are many winking references to how well-known his DeLorean design would eventually become, but the film regularly reminds us that DeLorean himself endured some serious difficulty in getting it completed. Indeed, though functional as a charming throwback to 70s-style crime thriller stories of intrigue and duplicity, Driven also serves as an intriguing biography of a man who faced remarkably disparate reputations, as both a gifted businessman and possibly a criminal. If story of DeLorean’s mired reputation is news to you, as it was to me, then check this film out if only for the fascinating story behind this stranger-than-fiction series of events. 

This story is well-told, with the various strands of details and developments never confusing and often entertaining. Sudeikis does well portraying Hoffman’s increasingly scattershot decisions, as the pressure mounts from the FBI and his friendship with DeLorean grows more complicated. Greer is good as Hoffman’s wife Ellen, and Stoll turns in some very enjoyable mugging and long-arm-of-the-law self-importance into his special agent role. But it is Pace, who, ahem, outpaces everyone else by far, and imbues his DeLorean with a deeply engaging mixture of performance, ambition, self-doubt, and force of will. Perhaps it is the result of that well-documented tendency for actors performing as real people to seem especially gifted, but Pace nevertheless earns his accolades in this part. It is truly an outstanding performance.

Certain elements of the direction could use more liveliness in a number of scenes, and a few punchlines could certainly use more work. Bateman’s script is very funny in places, but noticeably off the mark comedy-wise in others. However, the story has enough straight dramatic elements that are compelling and engaging that the comedic burnouts do not stick in the mind very long. 

What does come to mind often, especially towards the end, is the striking similarity between the structure of this story and of David O. Russell’s American Hustle. That film, the superior mainly for its richer story, more daring direction, and truly outstanding cast, strikes similar notes in plot, setting, and tone. The 70s glamor, intrigue and distrust between friends and confidantes, manipulative authority figures and comedic undertones all match, but thankfully Driven has enough of its own charms that it feels more like an homage and a partner project than a derivative spin-off. 

Much of this charm, of course, comes from the real-life gravity of it all, and the genuinely fascinating performance by Pace. This is an oddly grounded film at times, which both shows its maturity and keeps it from feeling truly outstanding. But the story is very interesting, the style rather entertainingly retro, and the performances collectively very good. A well-done film, and a good selection by the EIFF. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “The Art of Self-Defense”

“A delightfully sharp comedy.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Here is the funniest film of the festival so far, by a significant margin. In an absurdly deadpan style, with dashes of Jody Hill and Wes Anderson, twisted up with a delightfully uncomfortable cruelty reminiscent of Armando Iannucci, Jeremy Saulnier, and Yorgos Lanthimos, Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is a comedic gem, which is sure to develop a cult following if found and appreciated by the right crowd. 

This is a comedy that fires on all cylinders, but with a refreshingly subtle style. As a film, everything works; its camerawork is impressive and enjoyable, its script is clever and tight, and its performances are perfectly attuned to the material and tone. As a slice of comedy, it truly shines, with laugh-out-loud turns of phrase and amusingly absurd details coming at you constantly. 

We follow Casey, played by a clearly comfortable Jesse Eisenberg, as he reaches the lamentable conclusion that he is just too weak and pathetic at everything. He is disrespected at work and in day-to-day life, finding solace only in the silent support of his minuscule, adorable dachshund (the EIFF has yet to establish an award like Cannes’ Palme Dog, but if it did, this little fella would be a serious frontrunner). It takes a brutal mugging, where a gang of masked assailants on motorbikes attack Casey for no good reason in the street, to spur him into action. Initially, in a hilarious scene that promises extensive rewatch value, Casey attempts to buy a gun — Stearns does not seem to have much political intention with most of this film, but he does not hold back from offering a few sharp and playful jabs at how unbelievably inadvisable gun ownership can often be. Finding little of use there, Casey instead seeks out his local karate dojo, meets the inscrutable Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and signs up to learn some self-defense. Things only get better from there. 

As he spends more and more time at the dojo, Casey grows closer to Sensei and learns the intricacies of karate and its disciples. There are the eleven rules each member must invariably follow; there are rituals and secret classes that Sensei rules over with an iron fist; and there’s the mystifying and stoic Anna, played incredibly well by Imogen Poots (in one of two performances beside Eisenberg this year, the other being Kenneth Lonergan’s Vivarium, which I saw at Cannes and liked; these two have excellent chemistry in both). The film really excels as Sensei takes Casey under his wing, and offers sidesplittingly bone-headed advice for making everything in Casey’s life “as masculine as possible.” He dismisses Casey’s interest in France, sensitive music, and small dogs, leading Casey to grow unnaturally tough in a series of terribly funny scenes in which Eisenberg puts his all into embodying unearned confidence and unbridled machismo — all the while letting Stearns hilariously depict the most absurd understandings of manliness you’ll see this side of the Republican National Convention. 

Some of these moments do have some lightly questionable implications as we see eventful shifts in Casey’s attitude at home, at work, and in the dojo, but Stearns deftly stops short of making anything too serious to be an issue. The result of all the silliness also means some developments later on feel rather odd, and don’t always make sense, but the rest of it is so genuinely funny that these cannot be too harshly judged. And Stearns does, to his credit, build up to a genuinely exciting climax that I enjoyed more than anything else at the festival so far. Eisenberg and Poots having already turned in wonderful comedic performances in their time, it is Nivola whose comedic talent surprises as he delivers a genuinely great performance as Sensei. This trio is excellently matched.

If you want a delightfully sharp comedy, with enough laughs to be enjoyable and enough brutality to be engaging and surprising, then seek this out. I wager this will be a very successful streaming title; it’s the perfect type of give-it-a-try movie that will likely make many a curious viewer laugh all the way through their late night streaming session. I know I will watch it again as soon as I am able. 

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “Them That Follow”

“A remarkably powerful film.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Perhaps it’s the bone-chilling speeches I’ve seen Christian scientists deliver to a classroom; perhaps it’s the infuriating conflicts arising lately from the morally bankrupt practice of parents not vaccinating their children; perhaps it’s the intensity of the filmmaking. Likely all three. Whatever the reason, Them That Follow struck me as a remarkably powerful film which, whilst leaving little to the imagination, shines a profoundly necessary light on a real, complicated problem – enough so that its less intelligent elements can be overlooked. What writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage have made may not be perfect, but it is certainly a standout at this festival. 

Them That Follow delves deep into an Appalachian Pentecostal community that populate an eerie mountain and practice an illegal and profoundly dangerous ritual of serpents. That is, they routinely trap and keep deadly cottonmouth snakes, which they believe can channel the will of the Divine, and drape them over their congregants’ necks. If the snake remains calm, the person must be properly serving the will of the Lord; if it bites and poisons them, they must be somehow astray from His path. The absurdity of this logic is well-addressed in some outstandingly intense, spine-tingling sequences in which various parishioners are put through the ritual throughout the film. 

The local pastor, the de facto leader of the area, is played with electrifying fire-and-brimstone passion by Walton Goggins, while the townsfolk who follow him are played with commendable depth and lived-in realism by the likes of Olivia Colman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, and Lewis Pullman. Sparking the narrative are Alice Englert, as Mara, the pastor’s daughter, and Thomas Mann as Augie, a young man who has come to reject the church, but remains in love with Mara. Through some unsettling developments, their relationship becomes a warped rural iteration of Romeo and Juliet’s terrible journey, though somehow even bleaker at points than that story of teenage tragedy. Suffice it to say, the community is capable of some serious self-denial, resentment, betrayal, and ungodliness. 

It would be easy to dismiss Them That Follow as heavy-handed, unrealistic, too twisted for the good of the story and character development. But the directors explore the absurdity of their practices with considerable depth; to anyone moored in reality, this community is harrowingly rife with irresponsibility and endangerment, but to these individuals, it is their only connection to community, salvation, and acceptance. The fiery expressions of desperation, passion, and anguish that brim just below the surface of many a congregate are well-established and engaging to watch unfold. 

World-building aside, however, unfortunately, elements of the filmmaking leave something to be desired, including some unresolved threads and a lamentably abrupt ending that could have benefitted greatly from only a few more minutes, even seconds, of development. In addition, Poulton and Savage’s reliance on extreme close-ups and moody, austere cinematography occasionally smacks of fresh-out-of-film-school ingenuity, yet it rarely detracts seriously from the strength of the setting and performances. 

And the cast turns in some truly special performances. From top to bottom, the acting is sharp, uncompromising, and above all, convincing. More so than most in this festival, the performers disappear into their roles entirely. Goggins gets a refreshingly powerful role, for although he has turned in delightful work as clumsy and cocksure jerks in Tarantino’s last two features, he has always clearly been ready for a meatier material, and he does not disappoint. I certainly had to blink a few times to remind myself I was watching gifted comedians like Colman and Gaffigan, (and even Dever, gaining traction recently for her turn in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Pullman, who commendably held his own in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at El Royale last year against a positively stacked cast) who so effortlessly can make viewers guffaw and giggle, but here bury that mirth under an impressive amount of characterization. I should not patronize, of course — many a brilliant dramatic performance can be found when a comedian decides to turn their knack for timing and delivery on serious subject matter. Credit to the directors for coaxing so many impressive performances to the screen. 

Credit as well to those responsible for the unforgettable visuals and editing surrounding the truly terrifying snakes. If an award exists for Best Ensemble Reptile Performance, Them That Follow is a sure bet. Ophidiophobes, steer clear. Even as a fan of our slithery friends, I was squirming in my seat. Poulton and Savage have not made a horror movie in a traditional sense, rather an unsettling religious ensemble drama, but they make a real meal of the scarier elements; if you are looking to be disturbed by eerie reptilian menace, and vile human behavior,  — or even if you want to argue about the perils of true religious freedom — look no further.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “Yesterday”

“Exceeds the boundaries of ‘music films’ in impressive and unforgettable ways.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Here is a surprise. A few months ago, when the trailer for Yesterday was released, reactions stretched from sheer enthusiasm to sheer contempt. Perhaps the fantasy of it all gave some people pause, while the Beatle-worship appealed to the millions who are still steadfastly dedicated to their work. Either way, the project and the talent involved, from Danny Boyle to Richard Curtis to Ed Sheeran, were sure to cause some division. And I am happy to report, though division will likely still occur, Yesterday is both exactly what so many were hoping for, and a remarkably bold move in an unexpected and exciting direction. I recommend it to all.

As high concepts go, this one is quite a stretch. But although Curtis’ approach often suffers from major issues of overly sweet fluff and trite material, he threads the needle here with commendable grace and ingenuity. The plot follows Jack Malik, played with a hugely impressive sense of urgency and personality by Himesh Patel, an untalented songwriter who pushes himself to become a rockstar, even though he knows he probably doesn’t have what it takes. His dedicated best friend, manager, and confidante, Ellie, played by Lily James with her usual charm and magnetism, has much more belief in his talent and future career, and though Curtis is a little heavy-handed in her depiction as so deeply devoted to his success, their relationship is intriguing enough to provide a good setup for the film’s personal side. It quickly becomes something else, however, when the plot kicks in. For reasons unknown, Earth as we know it suddenly has a lapse in reality, and suddenly, the band we all know and love as The Beatles never existed. Only Jack remembers them, which, coupled with his now desperate desire to have some sort of success, quickly leads him to pass their songs off as his own. 

The premise, though a little daft-sounding at first, quickly proves two delightful things. Firstly, and most straightforwardly, The Beatles are just brilliant. Boyle, Curtis, and Patel clearly have a blast during the scenes where Jack is frantically trying to remember the lyrics to their immense number of genius songs, which naturally causes the audience to reach into our own memories, because odds are we know the lyrics too. Perhaps Marc Maron was actually spot-on when he said we all have a part of our brains that is preternaturally full of Beatles songs; when we hear them, it’s like we have known them our entire lives, and even semi-fans know the words to a great deal of their work. Yesterday works incredibly well as a heartfelt, loving celebration of these songs, and each performance will likely make you reconnect with The Beatles more and more each time. And yet, this was already clear from the trailer; just hearing a few bars of “Hey Jude” or “Help” or indeed “Yesterday,” no matter the plot, would remind you how great they were. Where Curtis’ script and Boyle’s crafty direction elevate the premise, however, is in the way they explore the wider implications.

This is the second of the film’s proposals: we are remarkably connected by our knowledge of The Beatles. There really is no comparable group that can claim the influence they have; to depict a world without the single most unifying musicians in history is a frankly inspired way to remind us what true cultural connection means. Sure, as is often the case with Curtis, there are a few overtly saccharine elements to Yesterday that elicit more eye-rolls than inspiration. Jack’s endlessly supportive friends and the relative ease with which he ascends to pop stardom is all played so neatly it feels too squeaky-clean at times. But I was impressed with the edge Curtis works in as well, and how subtly he does it; there is some remarkably bold criticism and brutal ribbing of modern culture to be found here. 

For while Yesterday celebrates the inimitable genius of these past masters, the film also considers the modern state of the music industry. Many of the film’s most hilarious (and rather poignant) jabs come when a predatory manager, played with comic ferocity by Kate McKinnon, callously orders Jack around, telling him what he has to do to become a star these days. Of course it’s all soulless, horrifically shallow things, that completely ignore and debase the charm and depth of the music to make money (which shouldn’t be a surprise to those who follow our biggest pop stars’ lives) but here Boyle and Curtis deliver a fascinating argument for why the dominance of this approach is so sad. The most puzzling element of this argument is the involvement of one of the worst offenders in this regard: Ed Sheeran. Sheeran, playing himself with an impressively game attitude, befriends Jack but also clearly resents that the music Jack plays is infinitely better than what he can do, and what he has made millions doing. When “Shape of You” comes on a few minutes after Jack sings one of the most beautiful songs of all time, “In My Life,” the effect is not just amusing but also rather revolting. How could such a dithering song be so popular when we used to have it so much better? 

My one serious criticism of the musical approach is that the film shies away from this very argument when it is in danger of becoming too critical. In one rather serious sequence late on, as Lily and Jack have more serious conversations about their attraction to one another, a Sheeran song that sounds like burning garbage plays, seemingly as if it is a genuinely sensual or compelling song. This is a bizarre moment that lets down the film’s otherwise convincing dedication to exalting music that clearly means something — every other music cue has a wealth of interpretations that will likely exceed your expectations of what could have been a staid and obvious love-in of a movie. Indeed altogether, Yesterday does not feel like it gets finished saying what it was trying to say about music, culture, fame, and honesty, and privileges Jack’s storyline with Ellie over the wider issues slightly too much. Thankfully, Patel and James are lovely to watch; with lesser actors, the romance between Jack and Ellie could easily become an infuriatingly distracting side plot that detracts from the more fascinating elements of cultural criticism; as it stands, their chemistry makes up for the distraction for the most part. 

Though such elements and a few other stylistic oddities keep the film from being truly great, there are some moments that prove this film is a cut above what its critics expected. I will not spoil a thing, as during one of these exemplary scenes in particular, I instantly felt deeply grateful I had not known what would come next, then incredibly moved. This is certainly the most moving moment of the EIFF for me so far, and I applaud the team behind this film for including it and dwelling in it with such grace and bravery. Let’s just say the legacy of The Beatles is explored in mature, intelligent, and unpredictable ways, and I found even more appreciation for their impact on the world as a result.

This is a delightful film, and though it is not perfect, and could have been improved with a little more bombast here and there and a little less Curtis cuteness, it is undoubtedly an entertaining and outstandingly crafted piece. When it was announced, I myself was more enthusiastic about this than I was skeptical; I have always loved and admired The Beatles, and expected a fun but light jukebox trip to celebrate how funky they were. But Boyle and Curtis, helped along by deft performances by Patel and James, as well as some other assorted cameos and surprises, have produced a wonderful thing that exceeds the boundaries of ‘music films’ in impressive and unforgettable ways. I was very impressed; see it, and I hope you will be too. If you’ll pardon the saccharine conclusion: remember to let it into your heart.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

The Duchess (of Malfi) (Lyceum: 17 May -18 June ’19)

Adam Best as Bosola & Kirsty Stuart as the Duchess.
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A swingeing attack against inequality and injustice … with gouts of blood”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Observe the bold italics: ‘The Duchess (of Malfi)’ after John Webster. Zinnie Harris’s compelling adaptation of the Jacobean tragedy has all its drive and grip, most of its heritage schlock, and some – but not much – of its superb, excoriating language. Never mind, Harris’s script is smart and disturbing in its own cause. Webster may turn in his grave but it would be a satisfied, pleasurable shift rather than a squirm of revulsion.  The great roles are there, just beneath the modern skin: the blameless Duchess; the depraved Cardinal; Bosola, the loyal creature  – all in the service of raging truths.

 

Yes, twin babies are gently rocked in their parents’ arms but the lullaby is ‘a slightly fucked-up version’ and love is defenceless. Back in Webster’s script of 1614 Bosola tells the Cardinal that

‘When thou kill’d’st thy sister,
Thou took’st from Justice her most equal balance,
And left her naught but her sword’.

Harris’ plot and Harris’ direction do the same, losing moderation, going on a swingeing attack against inequality and injustice. The bad comes first and it’s really bad. The Duchess, Giovanna, remarrries. Her two brothers, the Cardinal – utterly depraved – and Ferdinand – psychopath – find out and destroy her as ‘soiled goods’. Antonio, her husband, would avenge her but merciless killing is not for him. That’s more in Bosola’s line. However, watch the brooding Bosola, listen to him, for it’s a rewarding exercise and when the good comes out he’s your man. It is an extraordinary ‘turn’, beyond even Webster’s philosophical villain, and very well done by Adam Best.

 

If Bosola surprises, the Duchess inspires. She opens the play alone, centre stage, in front of a microphone and her audience. Her own story closes in around an excellent performance by Kirsty Stuart. Amused but all too aware of her brothers’ appalling misogyny, she is mischievous and loving with Antonio, craving and then burping  apricots during her pregnancy, and heroic – immortal – at her end. The two other female parts, Cariola (Fletcher Mathers), Julia (Leah Walker) suffer, fall – and rise – with her.

 

George Costigan as the Cardinal & Angus Miller as Ferdinand

 

The ghastly Cardinal is played by George Costigan, whose command of his lines is probably only matched by the respect he has for them. It would be a virtuoso performance except that to assign ‘virtue’ of any description to this demon would be too much. At least Angus Miller as the sick and puerile Ferdinand has howling lunacy on his side.

 

While she lives the Duchess has precious little freedom. If her brothers cannot control her, they can certainly contain her. Tom Piper’s set is a high undressed space, bleached stone white, with a gangway across its width. Sliding grillwork enforces the impression of prison and the basement bathroom provides a convenient torture chamber where standing mikes are used to address the prisoner. High voltage jolts frazzle the nerves throughout. Two songs offset the fear but still seemed out of place; worse, for me, was some foot stomping and an immediate association with the comic gospel strains of  ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, which was unfortunate.

 

There are inevitable moments of jarring tone and effect, when modern idiom and thought collide with the Jacobean. “I’d kill the bastard who did this to you, the fiends” could be left unsaid but I’m all for the gouts of blood, the powerful re-writing, and the electric challenge of the closing caption.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 May)

Go to The Duchess (of Malfi) at the Lyceum

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SCO: Leleux (Queen’s Hall: 29 Mar.’19)

Image result for lelaux oboist

Francois Leleux – Oboist and Conductor

“Leleux….. has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.”

 

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

My mother spoke little of her life before her children were born, but it was clearly an interesting one.  The youngest of six children of a Northamptonshire shoe manufacturer and general bigwig, the first of her family to go to Oxford (and a woman to boot) and a wartime spent at Bletchley Park.  But what I remember most clearly, as we were both musical (at Oxford she sang in Ted Heath’s Bach Choir), was her telling me of her experience kissing an oboist whom she went out with for a while at University.  She told of his incredible muscular lips (by virtue of the necessary embouchure of blowing two reeds together) which made the embrace distinctly unusual.  As a result oboists – and the oboe (I love its clear, piercing tone, as did she) – have held a particular fascination for me, although I have never kissed one, reserving my affections quite by chance for the string section.

 

Consequently the SCO’s appointment of premier oboist Francois Leleux as an artist in residence for the 2018/19 season was a must-see.  I could not get to the first two gigs but enjoyed Thursday’s “Three Serenades” Concert enormously.

 

Generally, I have reservations about soloists who migrate into conductoring, even of the musical standard of Ashkenazy and Rostropovich, as it is a bit like film stars wanting to be directors: they rarely cut the mustard.  However, it has to be said that Leleux, either with baton or more restrained with instrument in mouth, has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.

 

Our first work was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, played in a splendidly happy rendition that clearly showed a bond between conductor and orchestra.  Good tempi, very together for so early on in the evening, a surprisingly enjoyable piece from this manic depressive composer written before the dark times took over his life.

 

Next up was Dvorak’s Serenade in D minor, Op.44. A wind ensemble of ten, including contrabassoon, accompanied by cello and bowed double bass, all standing save the latter two; this time with Leleux taking the oboe lead as well as directing.  Leleux’s tone was clear, fresh without being over bright, at times soaring over the rest of the ensemble.  In the third movement Andante con moto he engaged in charming interplay with the clarinettist opposite.  It was good to get our fix of the great man.

 

After the interval we heard by far the most substantive work of the evening, Brahms’s Serenade No 1 in D major, Op.11 with the full 40 strong orchestra on stage, quite an upgrade from its original conception as a nonet.  Albeit written earlier on in his career alongside the Piano Concerto No.1 this is a mature work with a great deal more roundedness and depth than the rustic Bohemian fare we received earlier.  In six varied movements ranging from close harmonies in the brass to full on orchestral romance, pretty little wind passages accompanied by the put-put of the bassoon and a mad rush to the finish, one was reminded of the near chaotic finish to the Academic Festival Overture.

 

Perhaps my only regret of the Leleux season was that he played only one concerto throughout, the Haydn.  One would have wished for the Mozart with its glorious third movement Rondo.  Never mind, it is always best to be left wanting more.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

Go to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

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SCO: Swensen, Lewis (Usher Hall: 14 Mar.’19)

“Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

Thursday’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s gig played to a larger and more diverse audience than at their normal Queen’s Hall venue, and the audience showed their appreciation with a near full house, enthusiastic applause, restraint with seasonal agues such as coughing (your beleaguered writer included!) and respectful post performance silences following the conductor’s upraised baton at the end of the quieter pieces.  It was a joy to be among the cognoscenti.

 

The programme was a contrast of early and late Romantic works, with composition dates ranging from 1787 to 1924. Curiously, three of the works comprised several years in their gestation, and the remaining Coriolan Overture was written for no apparent purpose at all other than composition for the sake of it (not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is more of a 20th rather than 19th century idea, in a past age of mostly commissioned music). Beethoven spent 11 years finalising his Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 19 (which was in fact his first concerto), and Sibelius the best part of a decade on his last two symphonies.  That is, I have calculated, about 3 minutes music per year in the case of the latter, one minute in the case of the Beethoven.  I guess that they had one or two other things to attend to as well?  Even George R R Martin is doing better than that with the concluding ‘Game of Thrones’ book.

 

Was the deliberation in terms of timescale worth it? In the case of the Beethoven I would say yes, for Sibelius, I would be less sure.

 

Conductor Joseph Swensen bounded on to the podium to start off the proceedings with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op 62.  An amiable great big bear of a man, heavily bearded, of mixed Japanese and Norwegian heritage, he kicked off the playing without ado and drove us through ten minutes of classical gothic music without reference to a score.  The orchestra responded well to his enthusiastic conducting (no baton) and we experienced a fluent, well played opener that lifted our spirits.

 

Next up the wonderfully adept Paul Lewis took us through the Beethoven Piano Concerto no 2.  Only last week Can Cakmur gave us a spellbinding interpretation of the third with the RSNO in the very same hall.  The second was a completely different work, of almost a different world, mature Mozart rather than Beethoven at the height of his powers, eleven years separating their composition. To compare them would be comparing chalk with cheese. Lewis played with consummate ease and brought everything out of the work that he should have.  After the long, tautly played orchestral opening Lewis entered with bright, clear tone, good intonation and phrasing.  The well known third movement Rondo: Molto Allegro was a delightful, reassuring romp.  Enthusiastic applause but alas no encore, the more surprising in view of the relatively short duration of the programme.  Never mind, mustn’t be greedy.

 

Two Sibelius symphonies filled the second half of the programme, No 6 in D minor, Op 104 (1923) and No 7 in C, Op 105 (1924).  This was the programme feature of the evening, and one wondered what our charming rather enigmatic conductor, with his Scandinavian roots, would make of these relatively unknown works compared to the over popular 2nd and 5th symphonies

 

The 6th is constructed in conventional four movement style and lasts approximately 25 minutes.  Too much, in my opinion, has been made of the fact that Sibelius was studying Palestrina when he wrote it.  More telling, I suspect, was that it was rather overshadowed by the fifth symphony being written at the time.  Sibelius himself said that it reminded him of snow falling.  A sublime, ethereal string orchestra opening followed by woodwind calling.  Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor.  The second movement built up the tension and the third was a return to the more plaintive; the final Allegro Molto a return to the brass we know so well.  I wanted to rush home and listen to it again and again.  A privilege to hear this “Cinderella” of Sibelius symphonies being done by so rightly by a deeply sensitive conductor and orchestra.

 

Finally to the final Sibelius symphony, No 7.  A single movement work of a little under 25 minutes, more of a tone poem and originally entitled Fantasia Symphonica No 1, Robert Layton has described it as “completely original in form, subtle in its handling of tempi, individual in its treatment of key and wholly organic in growth”.  Moreover ‘New Grove’ describes it as “Sibelius’s most remarkable symphonic achievement”.   Hmm.  It does grow and deliberately lacks the shape of a symphony. I suppose one should regard it as a musical development, even if one does not always know where it is going.  A string opening very much in the tragic genre, with the brass making its presence felt and gradually taking over.  Bruckner does brass with forcefulness and aggression, Wagner with foreboding, but Sibelius does brass with soul!  The work, much favoured by many, made for an intriguing essay in related sounds and passages conjuring up imaginings of mystical Finnish folklore.

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 14 March)

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