Monday, 11 April 2011

Luton does culcher too

The more we look, the more we find out about Luton. Recently, for instance, we’ve discovered that it does culture too.

On the very same stage which gave us the remarkable theatrical experience of Alison Wonderbra we recently attended a Monday night concert performed by the ‘Symphonia Academica’, billed as resident orchestra of the University of Bedfordshire. Now the stage at the Library Theatre is sumptuous, in the sense that certain pocket handkerchiefs can be sumptuous. So when it came to playing a great symphonic pieces scored for 70-piece orchestra, they ended up playing it fifty-seven pieces short: the musicians were down to thirteen, unlucky for some, though not, on that occasion, for us I'm glad to say.

Symphonia Academica: in greater numbers than when we saw them
and more spacious surroundings
The reduced numbers meant that, where in more conventional performances you might expect banks of violins, woodwinds and so on, what we got was one of each. It must be quite fun for the musicians: each of them is a section leader. Of course, rather like Nick Clegg of the rapidly imploding British Liberal-Democrat party, they’re leaders without followers, but I imagine it’s still quite a buzz. After all, you aren’t just one of the second violins, you’re the second violin, you’re the French horn, you’re the clarinet.

In fact, the only section with more than one player was percussion, but then you can’t play the triangle and the kettle drums at the same time.

The amazing moment was when the cellist did an impressive and moving solo. Curious, isn’t it? She was always the only cellist, and yet there was a bit where she was obviously solo, whereas in all the other bits she was just alone. Interesting, I suppose, if you like that kind of linguistic whimsy.

They started the evening with a much less conventional piece. It was the UK premiere – yes, Luton can be a trend setter too – of a piece first performed at a Music Academy in Bulawayo. Now Zimbabwe, as the composer who introduced the piece told us, is associated with many things in popular imagination but music teaching isn’t perhaps the first to spring to mind. The Bulawayo Academy is however a dynamic institution and 180 singers joined in the first ever performance of Richard Sisson’s The Mukamba Tree.

At the Library Theatre, 180 Bulawayans would have been a bit over the top, so instead we had a dozen students from Luton’s Sixth Form College, backed by the same mini-orchestra. They made up in gusto, and I’m glad to say in talent, for what they lacked in numbers.

I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to the piece. When I hear of a contemporary composition evoking African themes my heart sinks and I dread of something full of dissonance and pretension. But in fact it was jazzy, lively and fun. The whole evening, basically, was a great success.

Which was a bit of a relief after our first venture into classical music locally. Danielle has told me firmly that there’s absolutely no need for me to name the orchestra involved or to say any more than is absolutely necessary about a performance over which it is probably best to draw a veil of discretion. So I’ll just remark that if you go to see a bunch of people performing classical music in public, the least you would probably expect is that the musicians play in tune and in time with each other.

It seems that this is not always a reasonable expectation.

Perhaps it’s best to sum up the evening by saying that they played one of my favourite pieces and I wish they hadn’t.

However, I can at least now proclaim, with pride, that alongside its many other accomplishments, my adopted town also does culture.

And sometimes it does it rather well.

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