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Sparkle and Communicability

Joseph Horovitz's 80th birthday celebration,
appreciated by MALCOLM MILLER


Delightfully idiomatic instrumentation in a unique neo classical-jazz synthesis give the brass and wind music of Joseph Horovitz its sparkle and communicability, qualities attested at the 80th Birthday Celebration for Joseph Horovitz at London's Royal College of Music on 26 May 2006. The concert was performed superbly by leading ensembles of the Royal College of Music to a large and enthusiastic audience, in the presence of the composer, one of several conductors. While his works cover a vast spectrum of genres including chamber music (his fifth string quartet featured in the Park Lane Group's recent Jubilee Season), ballets and operas (most recently Ninotchka, based on the 1939 MGM film starring Greta Garbo), it is to the repertoire of brass and wind music that Horovitz has made a particularly significant contribution. This programme reflected both the serious and lighter aspects of Horovitz's oeuvre, from the early, burlesque Music Hall Suite of 1964 to the compellingly expressive Ad Astra, a 1990 RAF commission for the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

The Sinfonietta (1971), the first of Horovitz's many National Brass Band Championship test pieces, formed a scintillating overture. Zone One Brass, under the baton of RCM Head of Brass Nigel Black, projected its propulsive main theme with excitement and suspense, while the pastoral slow movement flowed with sheer enjoyment around harmonic highways and byways, leading to an explosive finale. More overtly neo-baroque was the Concertino Classico, commissioned for the 1985 Bach Tercentenary. Cornet soloists Gemma Fuller and Lucy Leleu, conducted by RCM graduate Simon Dobson, projected their frothy counterpoint with panache, and, as in a remix of Bach's double violin concerto, with ravishing lyricism in the aria-like slow movement.

Joseph Horovitz
Joseph Horovitz

The popular Music Hall Suite, played by the Anglo-Portuguese Quintet, was full of punchy humour and vitality in the faster dances, but the expressive highlight of the concert was Ad Astra, inspired autobiographically on Horovitz's memory of the Blitz in London as a teenage Jewish-Austrian refugee in Britain. The RCM Wind Orchestra conducted by RCM Head of Winds Janet Hilton brought plenty of dramatic tension to the richly elegiac textures contrasted by threatening thematic elements, with echoes of Walton, Finzi, even Strauss. Particularly effective was the final paragraph where a solo trumpet taps out a morse code SOS while clarinets spiral in ascending triads suggesting a lone fighter-pilot's spiral towards the stars.

The composer himself took the podium to conduct, with youthful verve, two of the most demanding works. Zone One Brass's performance of the virtuoso Ballet for Band underlined the varied moods, notably the 'Till Eulenspiegel' horns of the first movement, a dreamy slow waltz movement, and a brilliantly ironic finale, with burlesque trombones. The RCM Wind Orchestra's performance of Dance Suite (1991) was equally impressive, the tripping slow movement infused with Mahlerian, even Straussian echoes. It concluded a worthy birthday tribute to one of the RCM's most distinguished Professors and Fellows, whose works continue to inspire generations of composers and musicians, and delight audiences the world over.

Copyright © 4 June 2006 Malcolm Miller, London UK



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