A beastly weekend in Cheltenham

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Jeremy Pound enjoys two fauna-filled concerts in one day

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A beastly weekend in Cheltenham

Saturday at the Cheltenham Music Festival was all about wildlife. All sorts of wildlife. Wildlife with legs, wildlife with feathers, wildlife with gills. In the course of two concerts, in fact, I calculate that I heard 28 different species being depicted in notes (that’s if we estimate five species each in an aquarium and an aviary).

First up, in the morning, was Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals (hence the aquarium and aviary) at the Parabola, where the average height of the sell-out audience was noticeably shorter than usual – when it comes to imaginative events for children, Cheltenham has few peers. This was not your ordinary Carnival, but one where the subject of each movement was painted on the spot by artist James Mayhew as the music was in progress. Accompanying him with real panache as he wielded his brushes was not the usual chamber orchestra, but two pianists, Alexander Kirk and Jonathan McNaught, and one cellist, Rebecca McNaught.

Mayhew has done this before at the Festival, of course, illustrating Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in 2012 and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra last year, though the Carnival presented a different challenge entirely, as its movements are considerably shorter. Could our man really conjure up a picture of wild asses in the 45 seconds it takes the play the work’s shortest movement? He certainly could, and the kids (and parents!) loved it.

In the evening, it was over to the Town Hall to hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform the world premiere of Richard Blackford’s Great Animal Orchestra (above). This is a work that has attracted no small amount of attention thanks to its unique concept. Inspired by the book of the same name by soundscape recordist Bernie Krause, its five short movements incorporate into a colourful orchestral score recordings of wildlife made by Krause on travels around the world, from Borneo to the Arctic – those recordings are controlled by a player with a keyboard within the orchestra.

Sometimes the orchestral music simply takes its mood from the wildlife sounds we are hearing, such as the mournful beaver cry of the elegiac third movement; sometimes it develops or even mimics the tunes made by the creatures, not least in the engaging finale which plays ingeniously with the extraordinary calls of the Musician Wren and the Common Pottoo.

Among the various calls, hoots and growls, hints of various composers sprang to mind in Blackford’s music: Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in that doleful third movement, for instance; Britten’s Four Sea Interludes at the very opening; and Bernstein in the lively ‘Riffs’ section of the second movement. Was the music was occasionally a little too reminiscent of others’? Possibly so, but the piece as a whole hung together very well, and the wildlife recordings never sounded contrived. And, again, it went down very well with the audience.

To round off the day, and to celebrate the centenary of the composition of ‘Mars’, the BBC NOW treated us to a blisteringly powerful performance of Holst’s The Planets, complete with organ part played not on the Town Hall’s own instrument but, relayed through speakers, on the organ of All Saints Church a mile or so down the road. A nice  touch, this – this was the organ that Holst’s father used to play when the composer was growing up in Cheltenham all those years ago.

Of course, the animal depictions came to an end once Holst’s music began – Earth makes no appearance in the suite and ours is the only planet in the solar system populated by man or beast. Or is it? Is there life on Mars, perhaps? There’s a song in there somewhere…

BBC Music Magazine will be running a longer feature on The Great Animal Orchestra later this year