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Monday January 08 2007

I’ve already said here that the Simon Hewitt Jones show that I and my friends attended last Thursday was superb.  Now I will tell you why, and how.  And it really was, very, very good.  But not entirely.  Not straight away.

Before I put the knife into the early stages of the proceedings, let me say a little about the setting, which was unusual for a classical event.  This was the Gardening Club, which on the evidence of last Thursday night, is a dark basement club, just off the north end of the Covent Garden Piazza.  Environmentally, the two most obtrusive facts about the place, at any rate that night, were that the air conditioning machine made a loud swish of noise throughout the evening, and that it pumped out very cold air into a not especially crowded space.  By the time the music got started, I realised that I had misjudged the temperature quite badly, but did not feel comfortable, despite having been instructed to behave as I pleased, about rummaging about in my bag to put on the very garments I had just removed.

The reason I did not feel comfortable was that we were all witnessing, for the first three quarters of an hour or so, a Brand-X classical recital, performed by what sounded last night like a couple of Brand-X classical musicians.  And my Brand-X classical concert reflexes duly swung into action, and I sat tight and did not fidget or move about in a way that at a regular classical do would have the rest of the audience staring daggers at me.

The Brand-X classical musicians were Ollie Coates (cello) and Harriet Mackenzie (violin).  They played obscure modern pieces by obscure modern composers, one of whom was present.  And they played some interesting pieces by the young Mozart, and three of J. S. Bach’s Two Part Inventions, arranged for violin and cello.  The Mozart was new to me, and the Bach was really pretty good.  Except that by then they had lost me and I just wanted them to stop.  To my ear, in the proper music by Mozart and Bach, the playing sounded lumpish and under-rehearsed, individually skillful but not properly blended.

The only half-interesting modern piece, to my ear, was something called Klezmer, which was a Harriet Mackenzie violin solo.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like it.  But it was at least semi-tunefully unlikable.  The George Crumb solo cello piece sounded like Shostakovich laid out for an autopsy.  The newest piece, by a chap called Fokkens, a South African living in London, sounded even duller.  I rather think that in the introductory patter to this, the word “important” was used to describe Fokkens, and that word when applied to art always puts my back up, so I also listened to that only because I had nothing else to do.  The proper Mozart and Bach stuff just had me thinking: I want to hear this on CD, snug in my warm kitchen, played better, without all the background din.  Listening to all the modern stuff was like listening to King Lear speeches being declaimed with tremendous skill and passion, but in a totally foreign language.  Yeah, yeah, I thought. If I got it, I’d probably get it.  But I didn’t and I didn’t.

When I got home afterwards, I followed the links from the programme to Ollie Coates and Harriet Mackenzie’s internet sites, and they both seem to have decent careers going for them.  Coates can clearly play, as his busy life as a concerto-ist and recitalist suggests, and Mackenzie too.  But last Thursday night, I couldn’t be doing with them.

The trouble was, these people were letting the side down.  To be more exact, they were letting my side down.  I love classical music, the bits of it that I love, more than life itself, and I had assembled a gang of friends to come and hear some of this music because, this time, I thought, it just could be seriously different, be played in a manner which might seriously impress them, and have them saying things like “Wow!”, instead “interesting”.  Instead of the usual Church of England minus God occasion that classical concerts usually are, this one seemed like it might have a bit of fizz to it, a bit of fire and a bit of popular appeal.  And yet here were these two tremendously nice and musically very skillful young people doing, in circumstances that absolutely demanded something radically different, the same old classical same old.  On my own, seated on an upright seat, in a row of identical seats, among many rows of identical seats, surrounded by my fellow classical enthusiasts, in a place with averagely good accoustics and averagely sane room temperature, fine, I would have been content.  Maybe not ecstatic, but content.  As it was, I was angry.  And remember, throughout the first half I could not be a bit sure that the evening was ever going to get any better.

But, the second half of this event was as wonderful as the first half was awful.  As soon as it began, the whole audience, me and my friends most emphatically included, heaved a huge sigh of relief and we all settled down to enjoy ourselves.

This time, we basically had two violinists, Simon Hewitt Jones and David Worswick (pronounced War-z-wick), with occasional help from Simon Hewitt Jones’s brother Thomas on anelectric Yamaha piano.  The music was a huge improvement, and the playing was stunning, and stunningly together.  Suddenly we were watching and listening to people who knew what they were doing and who felt good about it and who had enough spare brain and performing capacity to really put it across.  Like the violinist in the first half, they stood, but with their knees often slightly bent, like rock guitarists who are really getting into it.  I for one completely forgot about the air conditioning, until brother Thomas later made a joke about it.

The repertoire was transformed.  Instead of dreary classical, and incomprehensibly furrow-browed modern, we had nineteenth century entertainment music, written by and for people whose object in life was to amaze and delight the concert-going masses and to get rich and to show off and to shag the girls in the front row afterwards.  That ultimate violin show-off, Paganini, was described at one point as “the most important violinist ever”, and this time I did not mind the “important” at all, because what that meant, David Worswick said, was that he invented lots of new violin techniques to wow the audience with.  Things like plucking the strings with the left hand, which is the same hand as does the fingering.

The Paganini solo piece that Worswick then played struck me as the equal least excellent item in the second half.  It was a compendium of miraculous special effects, but the musical line, for me, got a bit chopped about.  I found myself wondering if I had a CD of Heifetz, playing it better.  But it was still huge fun to listen to.

The other less than totally wonderful piece in part two, for me, was the one written by brother Thomas, called “Romance for Violin”.  This was for two violins, cello (Coates again), and Yamaha piano played by the composer.  This piece was defiantly and deliberately non-modern, but banal, I thought.  Philip Glass laid out for an autopsy.  (Nobody could accuse that piece of being “important”.) But at least the effort to please the crowd was being made, and for that, I say, keep at it lads.  By then, I was prepared to forgive these guys anything.

A very pleasant surprise was that there was almost no hint in all this of something I had greatly feared, namely an atmosphere of chocolate boxness, of making granny smile but boring the kids, of flowers photographed next to violins on shiny old-fashioned tables, of cheesiness.  That very word, “cheesiness”, was used in the pre-emptive cringe spoken intro to the Romance thing.  But mostly what we had was superbly vigorous, virile, young-at-heart entertainment, which the largely young audience all thoroughly enjoyed, with loud whoops in the modern TV studio manner as well as loud applause.  (The contrast with the desultory spattering of applause throughout the first half was extreme.)

I particularly enjoyed the Handel/Halvorsen piece, because it had been further arranged for two violins and showed the two violinists at their considerable best, both individually and as a team.  Now I could tell my friends what had been lacking with the duo in the first half, even in the Mozart and the Bach.  This! This instinctive togetherness, this musical line, this spark, this energy, this fun!  Unlike with the Paganini solo, they were both absolutely on top of what they were doing, and it was fabulous.

Elena the Struggling Actress was particularly impressed with the piece by Fritz Kreisler, the twentieth century violin virtuoso.  And the very first piece in the second half, played by Simon Hewitt Jones, the Wienawski, was also terrific.

I was so delighted by the wonderfulness that erupted just as soon as the second half began that I can’t swear to the exact order of all this stuff.  But I think that the Wienawski, Paganini, Handel/Halvorsen, and Kreisler bits were played in that order, and that in among it there was also a good negro spiritual arrangement by Daniel Thomas Davies, but no John Corigliano, unless I was so busy trying to take photos that they played this but I missed it.

Talking of photos, here is the least worst one that I managed to take, most of them just being a total blur.  I shows you what sort of lighting there was, and something of the manner of the occasion.  What it does not show is the energy and animation of the performances.  But, for what it is worth, this is Simon Hewitt Jones:


Even more than cheesiness, what I had feared most of all was simply that these people would just not be good enough.  If you call something the “Virtuoso Tour” then you had better damn well be a virtuoso.  And Simon Hewitt Jones - especially Simon Hewitt Jones - most definitely is that.  When I listened to him playing, I did not pine for my CD collection.  On the contrary, when, the following morning in my nice warm kitchen, I played a CD of Hilary Hahn doing the first Paganini Violin Concerto, I found myself pining instead for Simon Hewitt Jones.  Hahn was just too nice, careful, accurate and boring.  Where was the showmanship, the applause, the roar of the greasepaint, the drinks at the back of the room, the whoops of joy?

On the face of it, this gig, the bit of it that worked, was a classic exercise in retro-pop, with a few of the hits of Paganini et al being played by other violinists, on account of Paganini et al being dead.  But I see it as more promising than that.

Twentieth century classical music making was distorted, we can now see, by an atmosphere of unrelenting significance, of pervasive non-frivolity, of wall-to-wall great art.  This was because the core task of the classical music profession was not playing new stuff in a new way, but making the miraculous classical back catalogue ever more available to ever wider audiences, at concerts, on the radio, but above all in the form of a cornucopia of superb recordings.  So, no wonder everything they did - including the new stuff by new and now self-consciously classical composers - was sodden with deep significance.  These people were performing and recording an artistic miracle, one of the greatest artistic miracles in mankind’s entire history.  But those recordings have now been made, and people like me all have our miraculous CD collections, and it is against these CD collections that Ollie Coates, Harriet Mackenzie, David Worswick, Simon Hewitt Jones and Thomas Hewitt Jones, and all their fabulously talented but alarmingly numerous musical friends and rivals must now compete, by offering something different and equally exciting.

Simply stuffing the same old deeply serious concerts into night clubs is no answer at all.  To get to grips with their crisis, “classical” music makers must go back to the last great moment in their history when “classical” music was simply music - fun as well as profound, crowd pleasing as well as deep, an object of boisterous applause and not just of sedate congregational reverence, and then with the advent of the gramophone and the CD player, of solitary worship.  And then they need to work their way forward from that. They need to contrive smash hits as well as big set-piece profundities, short snappy pop tracks as well as hour-long longueurs, things to play at gigs to wow the punters and the drinkers, and then sell on the internet by the million because the stuff has only just been thought of.  Things that will pay the rent.

They need to become, in other words, and in among other more profound things, pop musicians.  And to be a big time pop musician, you have to write your own stuff, or at the very least get hold of it.  But, this cannot be reheated George Crumb.  It has to be the next big thing after Paganini and Wienawski, and Fritz Kreisler.  Fritz Kreisler knew all about pleasing the crowd.  He wrote pop tracks for himself to play, in among all those profound concertos and sonatas that he also played so beautifully.  But Kreisler lived at a classically backward looking time, and he had to pass his new pieces off as having been written by some famous dead composer.  Now, the need to make up new tunes is classical priority number one.

Well, I’m going to end this now.  I could now settle down and tell you in more detail, and tell them, what these guys should do next, but I’ll leave that for later. Suffice it to say now that I get the feeling that the Hewitt Jones tribe get all this, approximately speaking.  They may use different words to describe their task to the ones I’d use, and they surely have quite different tastes in pop music to mine, because we all do.  But, all such quibbles aside, I’m pretty sure that these guys don’t just know how to play their instruments.  They know what they’re doing.

I intend to do a lot more reading here.