Pianist Steven Osborne
Given the relative sterility of life, which has been done largely online for the past 18 months, we desperately needed a person-to-person theater in our lives. How refreshing to find a double dose of it in the opening week of the Edinburgh International Festival’s classical music program. On the one hand the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (****), with the accomplished narration by the experienced actress Dame Harriet Walter, abducted us into the magical world of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, courtesy of Mendelssohn’s complete overture and incidental music. In contrast to, A great night to sing (****), everything revolved around the razzmatazz of American music theater, with the entire focus on the heroic show-stop partnership of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II in a UK refit – by singer Kim Criswell with music director Wayne Marshall – the original “revue musical” by Broadway director Walter Bobbie, which premiered in New York in 1993.
That these two events took place in a Hollywood-scale open tent on the playing fields of the Edinburgh Academy Junior School, which used to manly fight a good ol ‘Edinburgh drench, just added to the curious theater that is this year’s Hybrid Festival. In truth, the incessant riot of the raindrops that bounced off the tight tarpaulin roof, not the scurrying threads that appeared early on in Mendelssohn’s filigree score, had a strange enhancing effect, similar to fairy dust on an industrial scale. RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård didn’t seem to mind either, who conducted a seamless performance that evoked a colorful symphonic unity in the set pieces and expertly underlined the calming perception of Walter’s sweetly woven narrative.
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Even the reinforcement, as sensible and subtle as it was and obviously necessary to carry every detail into every corner of the auditorium, was an acceptable eccentricity. Inevitably, minor sound shifts occurred, such as a single horn sound exploding with inadequate electrical assistance. But that same horn was meltingly sensual in its smooth nocturne solo.
There wasn’t much to do for vocal soloists Rowan Pierce and Kathryn Rudge, but when they contributed to Aidan Oliver’s Edinburgh Festival Chorus along with a reduced offstage choir of spiritual voices, the effect was warm and enchanting. A performance that made an hour of music seem like so much more had an animated completeness, not to mention the awareness that the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens might have been the perfect backdrop for a full theatrical production, if not in this weather .
Where the Mendelssohns had sophistication and poise, A Grand Night For Singing skipped every opportunity and whisked us off to lesser-known corners of Rogers and Hammerstein’s production as popular favorites from Carousel, Oklahoma !, South Pacific, The Sound of Music or The King and I. New for me was Pipe Dream (based on two Steinbeck novels) with its melancholy pre-echoes by Lloyd Webber; and Cinderella, a treasure trove of golden Rogers melodies.
But there was freshness in every moment, created by pianist / director Marshall and his sleek sextet with lots of textures in economically refreshed lineups (a transformative, beefed up Kansas City and a fancy swing-style Honey Bun) and visual tension from Kim Criswell’s sleek, never boring concert staging.
As with any good Broadway cast, the magic was in the personalities. Trained at opera, Danielle de Niese turned out to be a magnetic prima donna gifted with key lyrical moments that she hugged and caressed. Criswell herself cut off a masterful, matronly presence, in stark contrast to the full showgirl package that the actor-singer-dancer Anna-Jane Casey is, whose action-packed, hard-hitting performance of It’s Me (by Me and Juliet) ended on the only possible way when she did the splits. Also stylish performances by the adaptable Damian Humbley and the cool Scottish born opera baritone Richard Morrison.
It took their collective energy and wit to turn a potpourri of different numbers into a meaningful sequence, and what began as a slow burning soon gathered the heat and charisma that took us on a captivating journey of memories and discovery. Current ad libs helped.
Back in the city center at the Old College Quad, where a scaled down version of the Edinburgh Academy tent that would normally be the daily Queen’s Hall row of the festival is pianist Steven Osborne (****) produced his very own version of a musical journey, turning a seemingly arbitrary collection of pieces into a telling emotional sequence, albeit complete with an invasive urban soundtrack.
What, for example, have Schumann’s Impromptu D935 No. 1 (architecturally more robust than its insignificant title suggests) and the introspective Processional by American avant-garde George Crumb of the 20th
Osborne’s convincing delivery answered the question. From Schumann’s comfortable familiarity, his eloquent poetics, thoughtfully held in check by Osborne’s intellectual probing, the Crumb emerged like a ghostly afterthought. It too supports lyrical thinking, but here as fragments that are thrown up against obsessive rhythmic repetitions and a dynamic operating between barely audible and pulverizing declamation.
It paved the way for Tippett’s frenetic Piano Sonata No. 2, a work that reflects the composer’s preoccupation with his opera King Priam at the time (1962) and which carries the same electrically charged impetuosity. From the heraldic rhetoric of the opening and the flood of ideas that followed – including Osborne’s addition of footstamps to replace Tippett’s original idea of hitting the piano with his fist – incessantly clashing, to an extremely exhausting conclusion, this performance elicited an intrinsic meaning from the apparent external chaos.
Beethoven’s last piano sonata (No. 32 in C minor) must have raised the same challenging questions for its time. Osborne, with the unsettling echoes of Tippett still in our ears, rekindled that sense of exploring the unknown. It’s a piece he’s performed many times, but still finds ways to shock, excite, even amuse us – that euphoric boogie-woogie moment in the second movement. Pure theater.
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