26 May

Robert Farnon's Bassoon Concerto Receives its World Premiere in Malvern

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ROBERT FARNON’S BASSOON CONCERTO RECEIVES ITS WORLD PREMIERE IN MALVERN
CONCERT REVIEW
Romancing the Phoenix (Robert Farnon) : World Premiere
DANIEL SMITH, Bassoon
CHANDOS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Conducted by MICHAEL LLOYD
Sunday 13 September 2009

When an amateur orchestra in a provincial town is offered the opportunity to perform the world premiere of a new work it is bound to create a certain degree of excitement. And when the composer happens to be someone that many people regard as the world’s finest light music master of the second half of the 20th century – and the soloist is also recognised as a world leader on his chosen instrument, the musical establishment starts to sit up and take notice. And rightly so.

The venue was the Forum Theatre in historic Malvern, an idyllic town famous not only for its mineral water, but also because of its association with Sir Edward Elgar. The Malvern Hills, often quoted as the inspiration for much of Elgar’s magnificent music, are an overwhelming presence - but comforting, rather than threatening. One could almost imagine the great composer nodding in approval as the fine orchestra dealt competently with a wide ranging selection of music aptly described in the concert’s title "The Lighter Side of Classical".

As expected the local press recognised the importance of the event. In the Birmingham Post on 7 September Peter Bacon alerted his readers to a "Rare outing for exotic bassoon":

Bassoons – you wait years for one to come down the jazz road and then two come at once! ….it’s getting a real prestige outing at Malvern. As a composer and arranger, the Canadian-born English resident Robert Farnon worked with Frank Sinatra, was admired by Andre Previn and influenced Quincy Jones. The last work he wrote before he died in 2005 was a concerto for bassoon and jazz trio, but it has never been performed - until now.

The piece, called "Romancing The Phoenix", is in the programme being performed by bassoonist Daniel Smith (its dedicatee) and the Chandos Symphony Orchestra at the Forum Theatre in Malvern on Sunday.

Daniel says of Romancing The Phoenix, "Robert Farnon’s bassoon concerto was not bound by any commissions, deadlines, financial obligations, or anything else; just written to fully express himself as a composer.

"I was honoured that he dedicated the piece to me and he told me it was the best piece of music he’d ever written. As the only piece of music written by Robert Farnon which has never been performed in public, this concerto premiere will be a fitting tribute to the memory of one of the 20th century’s greatest composer/arrangers."

Daniel is a leading pioneer of the bassoon with a repertoire from Baroque concerti to jazz, ragtime and crossover. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall and the Lincoln Center.

On 10 September, under a heading "Robert Farnon’s ‘light music’ not to be sniffed at", Christopher Morley wrote a second pre-concert piece in the Birmingham Post:

A recent depressing correspondence in the Radio Times spluttered that MGM film music had no place at the BBC Proms, where it was allocated a concert this year, and that Henry Wood and Malcolm Sargent would be spinning in their graves. To be honest, I don’t care if they do. MGM had the services of some of the world’s most expert composers and arrangers (many of them refugees from the Nazis), and the scores they created remain classy examples of the film-composer’s art.

I wonder how many of our "respectable" composers would be capable of instantly providing an extra 13 seconds of music to complement a take where the actors had gone on too long? And I don’t think John Wilson, the gifted young conductor who has devoted so much time and energy into reassembling these film scores, and who this season conducts concerts of both film music and "proper classical music" with the CBSO, would have any truck with such musical fascism.

Michael Lloyd, conductor at both English National Opera and in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s publicity-grabbing production of The Sound of Music at the London Palladium, is obviously of a like mind. On Sunday he programmes an entire concert of light music with the Chandos Symphony Orchestra in Malvern’s Forum Theatre, a venue which more frequently resonates with all the sounds of Elgarland.Selections of music by the great film composer Ron Goodwin (how CBSO players who performed under his baton revere him) and the brilliant Leroy Anderson are included, as well as the whimsical Symphony 5½ by Don Gillis, subtitled A Symphony for Fun. Possibly the most serious part of the evening comes with Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances, but the undoubted curiosity is the world premiere of the bassoon concerto Romancing the Phoenix by the elegant Canadian light-music composer Robert Farnon, with American bassoon virtuoso Daniel Smith as soloist.

Smith is a versatile player whose repertoire ranges from the baroque – he has recorded all 37 of Vivaldi’s concertos for his instrument for the ASV label – to jazz, where his playing has prompted comparisons with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. His discography includes music by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and many other jazz notables. He also gave the American West Coast premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and crossover pioneer Gunther Schuller’s Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra, one of only a handful of concertos written for the contra.

Farnon’s concerto is heavily influenced by jazz, incorporating passages of free improvisation. The bassoon has to be amplified, Smith points out, to be heard above the rhythm section, let alone the rest of the instruments. "In the score you can see passages where the bassoon plays the role of a lead saxophone, with three bassoons underneath in the scoring, just as in a saxophone section," says Smith. "There is also a lot of percussion used and in many sections, the winds act as a sort of wind band within the full orchestra – Farnon described this as ‘a big band within a full symphony orchestra’."

In the final movement there is a section where both orchestra and "big band" sit back and the soloist is left to improvise on an up-tempo blues with a rhythm-section of piano, bass and drums. This passage is open-ended, and at the soloist’s moment of choosing the conductor brings the orchestra back in, beginning with the percussion. After several more passages involving improvisation, the concerto culminates in what Smith describes as "a really startling ending which simply flies all over the place and ends on a bang."

Farnon did not live to hear the piece played in public, and Daniel Smith reveals that the composer declined the chance to have it previewed. "He had the opportunity for one movement to be premiered with the BBC Concert Orchestra but turned it down because they would have used their own bassoonist (he would have had to write out any improvised solos of course), and he would not allow this to happen until I did the actual premiere. Which was very kind of him."

There was a pre-concert conversation between Daniel Smith and Michael Lloyd, chaired by Birmingham Post music critic David Hart. Daniel explained how he had become involved with Robert Farnon, and he made it clear that there had been detailed discussions during the final stages of composition to ensure that the work was right for the instrument. Michael Lloyd spoke about his wide career in music, most recently in London’s West End, and his love of light music. He was especially pleased to be conducting Don Gillis’s Symphony No. 5½.

Daniel Smith is widely regarded as the leading pioneer of the bassoon with his many critically acclaimed award-winning recordings and live performances. As the most recorded bassoon soloist in the world, his repertoire spans music ranging from Baroque concerti to contemporary music including jazz, ragtime and crossover. He is the only bassoonist performing and recording in both the jazz and classical fields. Daniel Smith's unique career has been profiled in Gramophone, the New York Times, Fanfare, Classical Music, Musical Heritage Review, American Record Guide, Classic CD and many leading European publications including The Times in England. In the USA, his career was highlighted on PBS's "All Things Considered'. In the UK, one of his recordings was the 'signature tune' for BBC radio 3 while BBC radio 4 recently showcased his career.

Daniel Smith's performances include jazz with his quartet 'Bassoon and Beyond', classical recitals with piano, concertos with orchestra, and highly popular programs divided between classical and jazz, with music ranging from Vivaldi, Elgar, Mozart and Verdi to Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie. Described as a 'phenomenon', he has been called the 'Gerry Mulligan of the Bassoon' in the world of jazz and the 'Galway' and 'Rampal of the Bassoon' in the world of classical music, bringing his unique sound and style to concert series, festivals and jazz clubs.

His historic and unprecedented 6 CD set on ASVof the complete 37 Vivaldi bassoon concertos was chosen as 'Best Concerto Recording of the Year' by the Music Industry Association and awarded the Penguin Guide's coveted *** rosette rating as well as inclusion in Fanfare's annual 'Want List'. These concertos, recorded with The English Chamber Orchestra and I Solisti di Zagreb, firmly established Daniel Smith as a leading soloist on his instrument. His recordings with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Caravaggio Ensemble for the ASVWhite Line label produced innovative crossover albums, with unique renditions of ragtime pieces, opera excerpts, and popular standards. In the world of jazz, his albums on the Zah Zah label, 'BEBOP BASSOON' and 'THE SWINGING BASSOON' showcase the music of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and many other legendary jazz artists. Other recordings of Daniel Smith are available on Vox, MHS, KemDisc, Pearl, Spectrum, Cambria, Regis, Crystal and Forum labels.

His performances have included many firsts: The American West Coast premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gunther Schuller's 'Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra'; the world premiere of Steve Gray's 'Jazz Suite For Bassoon' with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra; solo concerts at New York's Lincoln Center and the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, and also five appearances at London's 'Pizza On The Park' with his jazz quartet. Other major venues where he has performed include New York's Carnegie Recital Hall (two appearances) and the Merkin Concert Hall. In London, the Wigmore Hall (three times), St.John's Smith Square, and the BBC Concert Hall. His many recordings are heard throughout the world on classical and jazz radio stations, National Public Radio in the USA, major airlines for in-flight listening, and featured with leading book and record clubs as well as the Muzak network. In 2003, Daniel Smith was designated as 'Ambassador for the Bassoon' by Youth Music in the UK.

In 2008 the International Jazz Journalists Association voted him as finalist for 'player of the year' in their category of "Instruments rare in jazz'. Starting at the end of 2009 and thereafter, his new jazz album 'Blue Bassoon', will be heard world-wide on leading jazz radio stations.

Warner Chappell recently published the score and parts of "Romancing The Phoenix" with Robert Farnon's dedication to 'The American virtuoso Daniel Smith' on the title page.

The conductor Michael Lloyd, BA, ARCM, also has an impressive cv: read music at the University of East Anglia; postgraduate studies at RCM. Career includes: Scottish Ballet (company pianist and professional conducting debut);  Staatstheater Kassel where he switched from ballet to opera, Württembergisches Staatstheater, Stuttgart; ENO 1985-2003, conducting new productions, revivals and performances in a wide range of repertoire (in 1989 appointed Assistant Music Director, in 1998 Senior Resident Conductor).  Conducted frequently in New Zealand (opera, concerts and ballet), in Japan, Korea, Singapore and Macau.  Regular conductor with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and English National Ballet and made his debut with the Ulster Orchestra and with Opera Holland Park in 2005.  Has returned regularly to ENO since 2003.  Music Director of the Chandos Symphony Orchestra, Malvern and the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra.

David Hart’s report on the concert was printed in the Birmingham Post on 15 September. He began:

Although conductor Michael Lloyd is not a complete stranger to ‘light’ music, for the Chandos Symphony Orchestra this concert was a new experience, and one I’m sure they will want to repeat.

In addition to introducing these part-time players, who for tonal quality and precision could easily be mistaken for full-time professionals, to the delights of miniature classics by Leroy Anderson, Ron Goodwin and Don Gillis (and on a more elevated level Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances), it also gave us the world premiere of Robert Farnon’s bassoon concerto "Romancing the Phoenix".

Completed just before Farnon’s death in 2005, the work was written for the American bassoonist Daniel Smith, a multi-talented performer equally adept in classical music, jazz and crossover. And it’s these qualities which shape and inform the concerto, by integrating and contrasting the bassoon with full orchestra and a jazz trio.

At times it seems an uneasy combination. Smith’s note-bending, although elegiac in its way, on Sunday sounded rather at odds with the lyrical opulence and lush string writing of the opening Andante Moderato; but when it lifted off into brass-led big band territory with jazz bass and drums, everything fell into place.

The slow movement also started reflectively, though less purposefully, again reserving its big moment – with the amplified soloist pitted against full brass – until the end.

As did the finale, although there were jazzy excitements along the way, including a very punchy improvised cadenza. The best moment, however, came in the concluding bars, with a flying scamper of bassoon and orchestral woodwind culminating in a glorious Mahlerian tam-tam clang. If only there had been more of that sort of thing earlier.

As many RFS members will no doubt agree, Robert Farnon’s serious works become considerably more enjoyable when heard several times. His writing is often so complex, and his harmonies frequently unexpected, that a first encounter does not always reveal a new work in its full splendour. An audience accustomed to the works of Beethoven, Wagner and Mozart must have found the experience in Malvern that Sunday evening something of a cultural shock, although the applause at the end indicated that many people present were very glad to be there.

Daniel Smith certainly rose to the occasion magnificently. His mastery of the bassoon is beyond question, and his careful preparation for the premiere was evident. The work is based on the "Saxophone Tipartite" from 1971, but Farnon has added some nice touches, including a sensitive introduction lasting around two minutes before the full, rich orchestral sound fills the concert hall so dramatically.

The climax of the work finds the bassoon supported by a jazz trio – Sean Whittle on keyboard, Russell Swift bass and Steve Smith who was outstanding on drums. The audience clearly wanted to hear more from this impressive quartet, and Daniel obliged with three titles from his latest CD "Blue Bassoon", ending with the Mercer Ellington classic "Things Ain’t What They Used To Be".

Amazingly some members of the orchestra (particularly the strings) managed to sit through this jazz session without any sign of the rhythms reaching their bodies. How they could sit there without even the slightest movement of even a gently tapping foot was astonishing. Of course, the brass, woodwinds, percussion and notably the french horns were certainly caught up in the excitement of the occasion – as was the audience!

Our president David Farnon was present to witness the premiere, and it was good to meet several other RFS members as well, including John Bladon, David Corbett and Eric Smith.

Thanks to Daniel Smith’s persistence, the concert was previewed in the magazine Classical Music on 29 August, and it made the Bassoon Concerto its ‘Premiere of the Fortnight’ with a report covering two-thirds of the page and photos of both Daniel Smith and Robert Farnon. Chris Elcombe’s report went into some detail about the meetings between performer and composer:

The timing of Farnon’s death helps to explain the premiere’s delay until 2009 as Smith explains: "When he died unexpectedly early in 2005 it fell on my shoulders to follow up and try to get premieres and performances lined up, which was not an easy task starting from scratch". Fortunately though, there had been enough time for composer and soloist to discuss the piece together in the final weeks of Farnon’s life. "When I first flew to Guernsey he showed me a work in progress and I offered input and ideas. Within a very short time he had it all finished. I had the opportunity to fly again to Guernsey (this time to meet him at the hospital where he was recovering from surgery) and I played the entire piece for him. He gave me a good idea of how the piece was to be performed. Within a month or so of this meeting he died in his sleep, and this was the only opportunity to find out what he had in mind in regard to his concept of the concerto".

Daniel Smith is now concentrating on getting more performances of this work, both in Europe and his native USA. He also hopes that other UK orchestras will follow the lead of the Chandos Orchestra and include it in future programmes.th gave an exclusive interview to ‘Journal Into Melody’ about his meeting with Robert Farnon – published in issue 165, September 2005.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.