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REVIEW: OUJO/OUSINF ‘BOTF’ – HT19

by Christopher O’Leary

Mark Anthony Turnage | Blood on the Floor (1993-96)

For four jazz soloists and large ensemble

  1. Blood on the Floor (Prologue)

  2. Junior Addict

  3. Shout

  4. Sweet and Decay

  5. Needles

  6. Elegy for Andy

  7. Cut Up

  8. Crackdown

  9. Dispelling the Fears

Max Kiener, Alex Wilson, Hani Elias & Matt Venvell

Tom Fetherstonhaugh

OU Sinfonietta and OUJO (student premier)

5th – 6th March 2019 | Jacqueline du Pré Music Building

When OUJO and OU Sinfonietta announced their collaborative project at the start of the year, I struggled to think of a work that would do justice to not only the distinct styles of both ensembles but their well-known technical and artistic abilities. As the premier student ensembles for the performance of jazz and chamber music in Oxford respectively, two things were clear about whatever the resultant project would end up being; it would have to be a unique musical experience that students hadn’t achieved before, and it would not be easy to pull off.

The answer to such tasks came from the music of contemporary British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. Consistently ranked among the most preeminent living composers of our time, Blood on the Floor (1993-1996) is a work which cements that reputation. Taking dual inspiration from both the eponymous painting by Francis Bacon and Andy Turnage’s fatal drug addiction, he produces something which interpolates his own passion for jazz, both in its structural properties and in what journalist and author of the concert’s programme notes Brian Morton termed its ‘Bacon-like aim at the abdomen.’

Whilst it would be easy to overlook, an appreciation of the work’s extra-musical links was evident on arrival at the JdP; a series of line drawings created upon artist Tegan O’hara’s first hearing of the work lay scattered on the floor, with each wild and distinct sketch marking one of nine movements. Further artistic contributions to the hall itself – including more line drawings and sculpted teeth – amplified the feelings of excitement and unease that preludes any concert, and as the musicians gradually entered the hall the tension mounted exponentially. With Turnage himself seated in the balcony, the time to present his music to the eager audience came and what followed was a unique and unforgettable performance.

Conductor Tom Fetherstonhaugh’s control of the situation was made as clear from the first snarl of Blood on the Floor (Prologue) as his enjoyment, but equally evident was his shared onus of rhythmic responsibility with percussion kit soloist Matt Venvell. Guitar soloist Hani Elias and Venvell underpinned a distinct groove whilst the work’s characteristic motif – a simple ‘wry’ semitone – was varied in cacophony by the winds and brass. Drastic changes of tempo and character were managed with ease, and Junior Addict immediately dispelled the frenzied finale with lyrical outpourings from the clarinets and saxophones. The orchestral winds’ artistry was slowly passed over to the solo quartet’s care, with Alex Wilson’s sonorous sax lines transformed to evoke melancholia in the hands of electric guitar soloist Max Kiener. The give and take between emotional musing and outpouring was always expertly handled, contrasting to the heightened aggression of Shout, in which the horns deserve special mention for their management of exposed melodic passagework.

In Sweet and Decay, flautist Lucy Buxton’s dialogues with Wilson were mesmeric, with both players rising effortlessly over a burgeoning murk in the brass and percussion. The movement’s effectiveness undeniably lay in its microcosmic portrayal of the entire work; the fundamental essence of ever-building melodies – definitively elegiac – was most poignantly captured here. Morton’s description of the overall effect as both ‘rough’ and ‘tender’ was quickly brought to mind and – in spite of the occasional balance issue – it was one of few movements where the violins could really be heard, providing apt stasis alongside the mediating interpolations of the percussion section. A final outburst from the brass and Wilson’s last ruminations around the tonic paved the way for one of two movements that were left almost entirely in the care of the solo quartet, with Turnage’s predilection for jazz idioms in Needles delivering a contrast of styles rather than a fusion. Syntheses were provided in a different sense, as Wilson and Venvell’s improvisations referred back to motifs of previous movements, evoking a definitive continuity. The passion and enjoyment of the four soloists as they were left to experiment freely was clear, as was some of Kiener’s most outstanding playing.

Tom Carr must be praised for his deeply moving opening solo in Elegy for Andy, with the initial turn towards a more ‘classical’ idiom slipping slowly but surely towards poetically smooth lamentations. Issues of balance between the reeds and the strings were minimal in the face of opening up the musical space for Kiener’s solos, but the overall synergy across the OU Sinf players was well-managed, giving the sense of serenity rising above discordance. The immediate change to the rhythmic drive in Cut Up was down to technical abilities of both brass and percussion sections and – even though this movement exhibited the composer’s most panicked layering of orchestral textures – Felix Fardell championed a series of trombone solos which never failed to speak across the ensemble. Preparing for a sense of the work coming full circle in the finale, the disjunction of multiple rhythmic and melodic ideas across winds, brass and strings was once again underpinned by an undeniable groove and a sudden ending tinged with craze led into yet another movement which exemplified the soloists’ abilities. Crackdown was left fully in the hands of the quartet as Fetherstonhaugh stopped conducting, seemingly picking up where Needles had left off.

If Sweet and Decay could be seen to stand as a microcosm for the entire work, then the finale of Dispelling the Fears is undeniably its crux. Linden Schrecker deserves a mention for his assured euphonium solos at the movement’s opening, yet the undeniable champions of this closing rhapsody were trumpet soloists Nick Budd and Andrew Crabtree. Despite the odd moment of rhythmic insecurity, both players kept the music on edge with their mixture of blaring semitones at peak ‘wryness’ and virtuosic passage-work. Their almost bell-like tolling was sustained above the entire ensemble and demonstrated fantastic technical ability which was largely impeccable in its precision. The movement’s kaleidoscopic ending sought a sense of ultimate fusion in the face of so much fragmentary and uncontrollable scoring; not just to ‘dispel the fears’ of the immediate past but the work overall. Whilst, ultimately, it may appear that the solo saxophone was given the last chance at redemption, Turnage’s modification of the last cadence from a tritone to a perfect fourth at the very least gave the players the opportunity to convey hope, which – in Morton’s words – might evoke a less bleak prospect than might have initially been foretold. It was done so brilliantly.

Turnage’s Blood on the Floor makes a series of substantial demands; technical, emotional, physical – and so on. Whilst the fluidity and control of the entire ensemble in Fetherstonhaugh’s hands was undeniable, this was very much a work for four jazz soloists with orchestral backing. Make no mistake, virtuosity and polished artistry was evidenced by the many soloists from OU Sinf – all of whom cannot be mentioned here – who upheld their musical remit brilliantly. However, this performance was truly a triumph for OUJO who married diverse idioms with ease and arguably demonstrating a similar level of technical prowess for both ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ styles as the players for whom the work was first written – praise for Matt Venvell as both soloist and OUJO’s Musical Director cannot therefore be overstated.

A joint project between two of the university’s most active and high-achieving ensembles was never going to be an easy undertaking and – in taking on one of Turnage’s most substantial and difficult works to date – it was certainly the most ambitious student performance I’ve ever seen. What a privilege, then, that I found in constantly having to remind myself that the musicians onstage weren’t professionals and that such a fantastic and thrilling interpretation was being produced in the presence of the composer himself. The lack of the performance of living composers and diverse repertory is an issue which is self-evident beyond student music-making, but perhaps OU Sinf and OUJO’s wildly successful collaboration provides hope for something of a breakthrough. Needless to say, however, it would fall on Turnage himself to be the true judge of the evening and – as he was welcomed to the stage with rapturous applause from both audience and performers alike – the smile on his face seemed to say it all.

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