KLEPTOMANIA: behind the scenes

Our concert programmes are always built around particular concepts and themes, as we believe this can really enhance the live experience for our audience members, particularly when the music is less familiar to them. The programmes themselves have varied quite a lot over the last few years – from the ever-popular Seven Deadly Sins to How are the mighty fall’n (exploring the historic association of brass instruments with war) – but we have long harboured the desire to present a concert series, allowing us to focus on broader themes across several performances. This year we are doing just that for the first time with KLEPTOMANIA (kleptomania.septura.org), which as you might have guessed is based on our thievery of music originally written for other instruments. Each of the programmes in the four-concert series is devoted to a particular instrumentation – we began last September with Stolen Strings and music by Elgar, Walton and Shostakovich, and last week it was time for Pilfered Piano with Rachmaninov, Debussy and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Our decision to arrange the Mussorgsky has certainly raised a few eyebrows. It’s understandable: if you’re familiar with Ravel’s orchestration, or indeed Elgar Howarth’s version for symphonic brass, the idea of performing the piece with just seven players must seem like madness. What’s interesting however is that Mussorgsky’s original for solo piano is very much a work of chamber proportions – the textures are far more transparent and the writing less grandiose than the orchestrations which have followed, and we were therefore confident that our version would work well.

The Great Gate of Kiev – not as grand as you might think…

Rehearsals began immediately after our US tour, and continued a week later. We normally find it’s useful to have a gap like this between rehearsals when we’re learning new music due to the need to make adjustments to the arrangements (for example when we’ve realised that some players have barely any rests, or a particular effect isn’t coming across quite how we envisaged it would). As usual, the most tricky bits to figure out related to ensemble (changes of tempo, balancing of dynamics) – we’re very lucky with the players we have that most technical challenges are overcome quickly.

The first concert took place at St John’s Smith Square in London last Tuesday. This is a wonderful venue to play in for us, giving a good balance of clarity and bloom to the overall sound, and a very attentive audience contributed to a special atmosphere as we made our way through the first half. We had already performed the Debussy Preludes 10 times in the run up to this concert, however this time we had a change of personnel (Pete Moore on trombone in place of Matthew Gee) so we had to have our wits about us and make sure we stuck with any differences in phrasing and nuance compared to what we were used to. Performing a substantial piece for the first time is always a bit nerve-racking, but everything held together nicely in Pictures and the audience seemed to think it had been a success, so who are we to argue? We’ve been especially pleased to see lots of students and colleagues at our London concerts this season, so it was good to meet them all afterwards (over some refreshments, of course) and hear what they thought.

In full flow at West Road Concert Hall (phtoto: Tony Hawkins)

Five days later we were in Cambridge at West Road Concert Hall for the same programme. Despite some drama early in the day (Pete Moore woke up suffering from a blocked ear which made it very uncomfortable to play and impossible to hear properly, although he gamely soldiered on), we all felt a lot more relaxed the second time around (which may or may not come across in the performance – one audience member who came to both concerts reckoned they sounded identical!) I should say however that this relaxed atmosphere was shattered half way through the second half, when Matt Knight realised he was about to play a euphonium solo…with no euphonium on the stage. A brief-ish departure into the wings (he had to actually find the instrument apparently) and he was back, delivering a remarkably composed solo in Bydlo. Afterwards we got the chance to meet a number of local brass players, many of whom were familiar with Elgar Howarth’s arrangement of Pictures for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, so had been curious to hear our take on it. I’m glad to say they all seemed to enjoy it, and we’re looking forward to seeing them at our next concert.

KLEPTOMANIA continues with Borrowed Baroque on 1st May (London) and 4th May (Cambridge).