Sunday 27 October 2013

Ciconia Consort on the hunt for good tunes in The Hague

What a great start to a concert when you are welcomed by music even before you enter the concert hall. This is what happened last weekend in The Hague as the audience arrived to hear the Ciconia Consort open their 2013/14 season. The musical theme was the hunt and a local group of hunting horn players, the  Jachthoorngroep Waalsdoorp,  set the scene in the open air and continued with brief hunting calls inside between pieces.

My Dutch friend told me, approvingly, that there are numerous hunting horn groups in the Netherlands, maintaining a long tradition and, not so approvingly, they are all male. The group we heard was made up of horns of different sizes, from smaller than a bugle to larger than a modern French Horn, and this allowed for some really nice harmony which was in tune and with excellent ensemble  playing. Spoken explanations were given by Simon Fuks describing the development of the horn over time.
The concert itself kicked off with Leopold Mozart´s Sinfonia de Caccia for four horns and strings. There was some lovely playing on the natural horns and conductor Dick van Gasteren kept lively tempi throughout. Personally I could do without the balloons being pricked to represent the gunshots but others obviously found it amusing. I think if you can’t find a pistol maybe you are better just to leave this out. Why spoil such nice playing with horrible noises?
Vivaldi´s violin concerto La Caccia followed, with Quirine van Hoek as soloist. The playing throughout was excellent and the continuo part was played by Javier Ovejero Mayoral on a chitarrone. Using this instrument meant that the sections with solo violin, solo cello and continuo had a beautifully balanced ensemble and the instrument has a much more mellow sound than a harpsichord.
Dick van Gasteren introduced Mozart’s string quartet Die Jagd by reminding us that the composer lived in The Hague for several months when he was touring Europe with his parents and sister. In fact they lodged in a building almost across the road from the concert venue. I checked later and it turns out it was in 1765 when Mozart was nine. I am not sure about the point of performing a chamber music piece with an orchestra: the composer had a certain musical texture in mind and multiplying the number of players per part means that we are distorting that texture. I understand the idea of keeping to the hunt theme, but to be honest I think very few people in the audience would have walked out if one of the pieces had not been hunt-themed.
We heard a wonderful wind section in the closing piece, Haydn’s Symphony 73, La Chasse, and I think it would have been better to have played another piece using all these players rather than the string quartet. The Haydn was beautifully played. The Minuetto went at a ripping tempo and there was a frisson of risk, which fortunately did not materialize into an accident, hunt-wise or music-wise.
You can find more information about the Ciconia Consort   and see much better pictures than mine. The young players are very fortunate to perform in such a superb venue as the  Nieuwe Kerk  a multi-purpose building which has not been used as a church since the 70’s and which has wonderful acoustics.

What with all the hunting horn pieces, the full programme and long explanations by the speaker, the concert turned into a marathon two and a half hours. Nobody seemed to mind too much, and nobody minded either when a man wandered in during the Haydn, tried out a few seats and finally settled on the front row. Nobody challenged him or told him to get out, we all just sat listening to the music. How can anyone not love living in Holland!  

Sunday 6 October 2013

Big Band Koninklijk Conservatorium in The Hague

Sunday morning, free coffee and a top class big band in a plush venue for 6 euros. What more can anyone ask for? That was obviously what the other 350 or so concert goers thought this morning at the Dr. Anton Philipszaal concert hall in The Hague as we enjoyed the hour long set by the big band of the Royal Conservatoire directed by John Ruocco.

The set was introduced by a radio announcer who had prepared his notes very well, but it meant we missed out on John Ruocco´s own commentaries  and he was restricted to directing, which he does superbly. The music can be cool but his control is total: his long, clear count-ins  give every number a confident, sure start and his directing ensures excellent ensemble playing even on the syncopated stabs and in  backing phrases.

As far as I could tell the band decided to take advantage of the excellent acoustics of the concert hall, more used to symphony concerts by the city´s Residentie Orchestra, and not use amplification. Only the string bass and electric guitar were amplified, with a mic for the singer. This had its undoubtedly positive side as we heard the players’ own personal instrumental sound and their lovely playing without a sound engineer´s distortions, especially in the lyrical trumpet solo on Thad Jones’s Mean what you say, the beautiful piano solo on Barry Harris’s I love you so, and the trombone chorales which opened and closed Cole Porter’s Every time we say goodbye. The downside was that the sax section was not always clearly heard in the tutti moments, and even the solos played in situ lacked definition: In the closing number, Gus Arnheim’s Sweet & lovely, the alto soloist was clearly heard because he played at the singer’s mic.

I spent a few moments wondering how the balance would have worked if the string bass had played unplugged and if the guitarist had used an acoustic guitar: in this concert hall I think it would have worked well.

This is a great band with a long and admirable history. The ensemble and solo playing is all superb and the technical accomplishment is impeccable. According to the programme, the band was already active before the jazz department was set up at the conservatoire in 1979 by Frans Elsen, whose arrangement of the Barry Harris tune I love you so was included in the set. John Ruocco  has directed the band since the early 1990’s and has led the band in performances at top venues including the North Sea Jazz Festival on numerous occasions, including the most recent one. Ruocco’s own playing experience at the highest level means that all the details of style and quality are present in every number.

The line up for  today’s concert includes players from 11 nations. Here are the names according to the programme notes:
Trumpet – Floris Windey, Daniel Clason, Sascha van Loenen, Paul Instance
Trombone – Juanga Lakunza, Christopher Rennebach, Sten Valdmaa, Mattia Petrogalli
Alto sax – Manvydas Pratkelis, Marija Medvedeva
Tenor sax – Rokas Jaunius, Allessandro Bianchi
Baritone – Emilio Tritto
Guitar – Tamas Zador
Piano – S’Yo Fang
String bass – Bernardo Sacconi
Drums – Thomas de Visser
Singer – Katharina Ritzel

Without any desire to criticize, three questions buzzed around my mind while I enjoyed this excellent set, which was just as good, though not as relaxed, as the show I saw at an open day at the conservatoire in the spring. Yes there are Dutch names listed as arrangers on several of the numbers, but why are there no works by Dutch composers on the programme?  Yes, the credits on the set list are like reading a jazz hall of fame, including composers I have already mentioned  plus Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker and Benny Carter, but why are there no works by living composers on the show? Yes, this is a great band in the most open and fair European city I know of, so why is there only one woman in the band, apart from the singer?

Thank you to the  Royal Conservatoire  of The Hague for starting my weekend with a concert of electronic music (see a later post), and for this lovely Sunday morning big band show.