On Friday evening we went to see the Michael Nyman band perform at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. I've been a fan of the composer ever since we saw the Draughtsman's Contract many many years ago. I have several cds of his work. So I was very much looking forward to the concert.
His band comprised 11 musicians – a string quatet, an electric bass player and brass section (saxaphones, trumpet, trombone, French horn) plus Nyman himself on the piano. They played a selection of his well known works, many of which he had composed for the films of Peter Greenaway.
I have to admit that I was disappointed with the first half. The instruments were all miked up and amplified. The sound balance was wrong with the brass completely overpowering the strings and with the barritone sax too loud in the mix. And I thought that the overall volume was too high making it feel like a “wall of sound” at times and difficult to appreciate some of the subtelties of the music. I noticed that a few people had left at the interval, unless they'd moved to different seats as the large hall was not completely full.
Fortunately things improved dramatically in the second half. I don't know whether they had made some changes to the set up during the interval or whether it was just the particular pieces they were playing were less affected, but in any case I enjoyed the second half and so came away happy enough.
The composer's music is very distinctive, built on repetitive riffs or “ground bases“. The strings being frequently used as a rythymn section, playing incedibly energetically. By the end of the concert one of the violinists bow strings were badly broken and the chellist was obviously suffering from cramp as I noticed him shaking his hand several times during the concert. The female viola player was playing particularly energetically. The works often start with the strings dominating with the volume building as the brass sections take the lead.
The concert started with two favourite pieces from the Draughtsman's contract, Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds and An eye for optical theory. The poor mix became particularly noticeable on the latter and became particularly bad during the two pieces from A Zed and Two Noughts that followed, probably partly because these are not the most melodic of his compositions.
Michael Nyman is keen on football and a fan of Liverpool football club. The piece with which the band started the second half – Memorial – was written in the aftermath of the deaths at the Heysel Stadium during the European. Cup final in 1985 and will be reinterpreted as part of his Symphony dedicated to the Hillsborough disaster which will be performed for the first time at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral on July 5th. It's a moving piece. The half ended with three melodic pieces from his Water dances, the last of these, Splashing being particularly beautiful.
The band received extremely enthusiastic applause from the audience, a large section giving a standing ovation. And we were treated to three encores, the last a solo piano performance by the composer. For me, it turned out to be a good night, but, to borrow a footballing cliche, very much a “concert of two halves”