Improvising is largely a lost art as far as today’s classical composers are concerned. Contemporaries of Beethoven reported that the improvisations he gave at the piano were more magnificent than any of the works he actually wrote down, but if we want to hear anything comparable today it is most likely to be found in jazz clubs or folk traditions.
It is the jazz connection that brought improvisation into this short series of concerts devoted to the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage. Having given the premiere of Turnage’s latest major work, Speranza, two weeks ago, the London Symphony Orchestra turned to a smaller scale at St Luke’s for this relaxed evening, showing how jazz has long permeated Turnage’s musical thinking.
The composer chose his collaborators himself: jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock and bass player John Patitucci, who filled out the first half with a selection of short, partly improvised duos, each a perfect example of the jazz musicians’ art of give-and-take. Aside from being an enjoyable set, this also gave classical music-lovers in the audience the opportunity to hear what a variety of music a bass and piano duo can make together.
After that the programme crossed the invisible border into classical territory. Simcock’s new work, Cumbrian Thaw for piano soloist and string orchestra, paints an atmospheric landscape of the Lake District in winter. This also starts with improvisation – rarely a good idea where orchestral players are concerned, resulting in the usual half-hearted squeaking and scraping here – before settling into a pattern where Simcock improvised flights of decorative filigree against a moody, deeply English string backdrop. Unfortunately, the two did not quite gel. Neither seemed firmly in the lead.
Turnage’s A Prayer out of Stillness was another matter. A showcase for Patitucci, this puts him in the spotlight first as a bass player, then on bass guitar, and in an extended central section had him jousting in rhythmic contest back and forth with the lead bass player of the LSO String Orchestra, conducted by Alexandre Bloch. Jazz and classical, solo work and ensemble, playful and soulful, this piece blends opposites with a skill of which Turnage is a master. And it all felt so spontaneous, it could almost have been improvisation.