Joanna MacGregor

Spring Contemporary Piano Series
Joanna MacGregor - piano
Vanessa Williamson - mezzo-soprano
Stephen Pratt -narrator
The Capstone Theatre, Liverpool
15th January 2015

Reviewed by Joe Coventry

The Capstone started its Spring Contemporary Piano Series with a concert inspired by the French eccentric Erik Satie. It was fronted in the main by returning doyenne of the piano, Joanna MacGregor, and a brave choice it was. But not without a few bizarre moments for the reasonable crowd that had turned up despite the horrible weather.

Striding onto the stage, resplendent in her trademark black attire, and with a head-full of parted golden curls, the pianist started with Gymnopedies Nos 1&2, two of Satie's slight but seminal minimalist pieces. Was there ever an easier start to a long evening's performance?

Well, unfortunately the sheet music would not behave itself, forcing the page turner out prematurely to hold it in place - a first surely; Satie would have purred with delight. Not surprisingly she lurched straight into Pieces froides from a year earlier, 1887, with a touch of pique to music that demanded more effusive playing and which was darker in content and body.

Having regained composure Stephen Pratt was then introduced to provide stylised English narrative bon mots above the tinkling keys for the 20 short pieces comprising Sports et divertissements from 1914. These were prefixed in the main by Le (Golf, Yachting, Pique-nique, Flirting, Tennis), idling and peripheral male pastimes that the music sardonically dwelt on.

It was then the turn of Arvo Part's bell- like reverberations in two short works for piano reflecting on the feminine ideal. The keys chimed as light as water falling in a fountain, but it was the unannounced dark resonances in the middle of them both that lingered longer in the memory. Keeping it in the 20th Century Stravinsky's Sonata for Piano ended the first half, a homage to both Bach and Beethoven, and it was very easy on the ear.

It was back to Satie for the second half and MacGregor's 'solo' piano accompaniament to his surrealist/dadaist collaboration, the rarely seen 1924 film Entr'acte directed by Rene Clair.

Lots of typical effects traversed the screen, balletic dancing dolls, chessboard buses in a square, a birdman like flower, upside down eyes; all deservedly highlighted by a vibrant score. There was also a William Tell versus Lamburger Gessler type confrontation, (Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp???) and an upside down big dipper and hearse in the sky to fabulously dense chords from the piano; then with a coffin-man it was gone.

How to follow that? John Cage's Cheap Imitation 1 was the antithesis of the much longer piece that followed it. Both were concerned with the death of Socrates, the former in it's brevity and simplicity, a makeweight to what followed. Vanessa Williamson stepped up to the plate to sing Mort de Socrate Part 111 of Socrate, written and composed towards the end of World War One. She waxed lyrical in a langourous and listless outpouring of grief leading up to the philosopher's death by poisoning. So extravagant was the libretto that the singer used all the extremes of her vocal range alongside a piano that was more contained and comfortable in its range.

It was straight into a parting Gymnopedie No 3 to conclude events. There was no encore to finish, but why expect one from such an eclectic mix which had made for fascinating listening and watching throughout.

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