Brighton Dome livestream Coffee Concert – review

Review by Richard Amey

Joanna MacGregor
Joanna MacGregor

Coffee Concert – £5-per-household ticketed livestream (only) from Brighton Dome instead of Attenborough Centre, Sunday 22 November, 11.30am. Gildas Quartet: Christopher Lee, Gemma Sharples, violins; Francesca Gilbert, viola; Anna Menzies, cello; with Joanna MacGregor CBE, piano.

Schubert (1797-1828), Quartettsatz (Quartet piece) in C minor D703 (1820); Haydn (1732-1809), String Quartet in G Op76 No 1 (1797); Shostakovich (1906-1975), Piano Quintet in G minor Op97 (1940).

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First, some exceptional context . . .

The Coffee Concerts became the first classical music event to go out online from Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival in 11 months of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. It was produced by Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) and the Strings Attached chamber music society to engender more extensive classical music lockdown listening.

All involved had had to re-set their operation after what would have been the first live-audienced classical event with social distancing quickly sold out, only to be axed by the second government lockdown of England. Organisation swiftly went behind closed doors for an online-only event.

This meant bringing in Latest TV Brighton for the cameras and sound. Extra expense, but crucial help in funding-starved times came from Margaret and Andrew Polmear, who are confirmed Strings Attached and other Brighton arts supporters. Steinway Pianos also assisted.

The bonus of the livestream format increased accessibility and reach. Home watchers bought 186 household tickets, implying that the total viewers advantageously exceeded the number (around 180) who would probably have turned up for such a programme at The Attenborough Centre for 11am. It was all an unanticipated way for the Coffee Concerts, whose nativity was in Hove, to mark the 10th anniversary of their Dome arrival.

Artistically, in these circumstances how do you follow a modern national tragedy of probably more than 65,000 deaths so far, and thousands of others surviving but scarred or blighted for a non-forecastable period? Cheer everybody up with music of deliberate encouragement or solace, or have some escapist material for blank-out – or before any of that, should you be mindful of the ongoing loss and grief, sacrifice and agony of, and surrounding, those infected including caring front-liners?

A glance at the music offered signals the latter, and the consideration that the world is nowhere near out of the wood. Such is the breadth of catering that classical music performs. And such is the awareness as well as the flair of Coffee Concerts programming. To the arts, properly conducted for maximum penetration, the concept of concert business as usual should be anathema.

It needs adding here that this was the first live provision as well as performing appearance made by Joanna MacGregor in her new role as musical director of BPO – her hometown classical orchestra organisation. Her arrival promises innovation and adventure.

So what did the concert itself say? This was no sombre, choreographed memorial event but a subtly measured and respectful response to the pandemic impact. Yes, everything was black except some electric blue vertical shafts of backdrop lighting. But the musicians were not undertakers with hats removed. There were a couple of jackets, a couple of T-shirts of differing necklines, some trousers of various widths, a handkerchief-hem skirt and a cardigan.

The delivery by the Gildases of Schubert’s Quartettsatz was one of moderation. I have heard routine, nervously wrought, sternly arresting interpretations of this mini masterpiece, but here seemed a temperately considered presentation. Its purpose as curtain raiser was less to grasp throats and bring us to our sluggish Sunday morning senses, but more a careful scene setter.

Andrew Polmear would say that Haydn is just the composer to assure us all’s well with the world. But Polmear, a cellist, also knows the Haydn of all moods and sentiments, at such a moment as this, is ready with the right material for a string quartet to make its mark.

This opening quartet of his mature and magisterially powerful, penultimate Opus 76 is a look back down a lifetime of huge personal industry and progress with an all-knowing, forward-facing presence and the personal experience to impart something inventive, potent – or both. Nearing its end, out of rough-skinned, minor-key urgency comes a lively major-key brightening of light.

Goldas Quartet are another new young ensemble on the scene. Their own approach and intent is set to single them out, but they were admirably subservient to this concert’s aims. They gave us a strong and transparent first movement, a gentle and tender second in which, I suspect, the close microphone placement lent an unexpected woody, horse-hair colour to the sustained, withdrawn passages. That suited, too, the rustic, physical scherzo before the players rose to the vigorously-prepared break-out conclusion, in laughter and play.

I suspect Haydn’s role today was to elicit a gratitude for freedom as we had it in safer times, as well as an emerging collective hope for an escape with ingenuity from new, testing ones. With no interval in which to dwell on such a redemptive world state, as yet unsubstantiated, the choice of Shostakovich’s Piano Quartet – 80 years after its premier – gave us all an existential look under our bonnet.

Chris Darwin’s programme notes reminded of the composer’s already extensive film music output as well as the first six symphonies already under his belt. Shostakovich’s characteristic use of widely-spaced orchestral scoring – most obviously a high, singing flute against low, pulsing or ruminating strings – evokes the vast rural expanses and desolate wastes across central Asia. This music, with piano hands often thus widely separated and individualised in expression (seen by all on livescreen), set my imagination loose into these cinematic regions.

During the Quintet’s five different movements, me having my first concentrated listen, a narrative materialises from the music. First movement (slow): the narrator, a several-faceted visionary, has not just an emotional concern about something important, but an existential one.

Second (slow fugue): two violins emerge as voices worrying in a wilderness. Viola and cello join the earnest conversation; then the piano, dark and foreboding. All six voices (piano hands constitute two) seem to concur there’s no way out.

Is this an expedition run into trouble?

Third (scherzo, mid-tempo): I sometimes hear a Sibelian vista - lakes, harsh coniferous forest, light flakes of snow, interminable horizons, but without swans. The piano is agitated, irritable, impatient and at this tempo there may be intimations of death having a dance. Is this a desperate C major we hear in closing?

Fourth (slow): a walkabout cello seems to convince the others to take up the piano’s cause. Like the flute, the violin soars over the keyboard in agreement and all tread forward in new steadfastness. Survival is the only option. We are not Scott in the Antarctic.

Fifth (mid-tempo, arriving with no break): Piano leads them into definite daybreak. Confidence has returned, octaves across all instruments declare unity. Muted strings (a masterstroke, this late) bring optimistic chattering among the party and the very finish is childlike.

There is enough allegorical of us in our new today, to make me want to think that those who programmed this piece, and placed it last in this concert, had something like this effect in mind. I offer them congratulations, even if not.

Richard Amey

Next Coffee Concert: before Sunday, we could count on nothing, what or when. Perhaps now we can imagine something else in future.