The London Concerts 2009

Two fund-raising concerts were held in London in April/May 2009 on behalf of the Academy and the Bulawayo Music Festival.  They were first proposed by Morgan Szymanski and Leslie Howard over lunch on the day most of the musicians flew out at the end of the last festival in 2008 as a way of making sure there would be another one.  At the time, Zimbabwe was in the grip of hyperinflation, funding was a nightmare with ticket sales generating a very small percentage of the total cost of the festival and a successor seeming improbable.

Once serious thought was given to the idea, it seemed that an appeal for the Academy might be more successful: festivals are ephemeral, they come and go, but the Academy is something permanent, a national institution serving a useful and specific purpose and more likely to elicit generous support.  It was quickly agreed with several of the musicians likely to take part that the concerts should be in aid of both the Academy and a future festival, and it was finally decided that the division of the spoils would be two-to-one in the Academy’s favour.

The next task was to find people prepared to help in both putting on the concerts and finding sponsors, and there we were remarkably fortunate.  Fiona MacDonald and Rosemary Pickering did a huge amount of the work in London to make the concerts happen.  Fiona had made two visits to Zimbabwe during which she both gave recitals and sang with the Philharmonic Chorus in Vivaldi’s Gloria and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols.  Rosemary had recently retired as Chief Executive of the Young Concert Artists Trust, in which position she had sent Bulawayo many marvellous young musicians including Libor Novacek, Morgan Szymanski, Oliver Cox, Kristian Chong and Daniel Hill, and was a willing collaborator.

The other stroke of great good fortune was the assistance of Ron Sandler, now a major force in the City of London, a former Chief Executive of Lloyds of London and currently Chairman of Northern Rock, but, more to the point, he was formerly a student of the Academy where he was a contemporary of Graham Johnson.  He was (and remains) enormously supportive and secured generous sponsorship so that even before a ticket was sold, we were assured of raising a very worthwhile sum.

Of course nothing would have been possible without the generosity of the musicians taking part, 21 of them, most of whom had visited Zimbabwe at some stage, several actually born here. All gave their services completely free. In addition there were some fifty youngsters from the Young Music Makers who opened the second concert with Morgan Szymanski’s Zambezi Sarabande, the piece initially written for massed voices, guitars and marimbas at the 2008 Bulawayo Music Festival but here presented by a rather smaller and more conventional ensemble.

It was an impressive line-up. The musicians – in order alphabetical – were Wissam Boustany (flute), Michael Brownlee Walker (piano), Olly Cox (percussion), Christopher Gould (piano), Coady Green (piano), Kathryn Hannah (mezzo-soprano), Leslie Howard (piano), Graham Johnson (piano), Piers Lane (piano), Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Fiona MacDonald (mezzo-soprano), Hamish Milne (piano), Melissa Mills (flute), Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Libor Novacek (piano), Kate Royal (soprano), Matthew Sharp (cello), Morgan Szymanski (guitar), Lauren Turner (flute), Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin) and Sebastian Wybrew (piano).  Margaret Fingerhut (piano) would have made 22 but she returned from overseas engagements on the morning of the second concert feeling unwell and was ordered to bed.

The first concert in St.Peter’s Eaton Square presented the more unified programme with a major piano trio and music for flute in each half.  Wissam Boustany, partnered by Michael Brownlee began, appropriately enough for a concert with African connections, with Ian Clarke’s wonderfully evocative Orange Dawn – one can almost see the sun rising in a cloudless sky – and Mouquet’s La flûte de Pan, both works he’d played here in Bulawayo a couple of months earlier.  The two young Zimbabwean flautists Lauren Turner and Missy Mills began the second half with Daniel Luzuriaga’s Tierra, Tierra which seemed to bring the sounds of the Amazon jungle into Eaton Square in a virtuoso display before more Ian Clarke, Maya, again with Michael Brownlee Walker, brought balm in a superbly lyrical piece which deserves to become a popular favourite.  The composer was in the audience and delighted with the performances his music received.

Dame Felicity Lott was accompanied by Sebastian Wybrew since, sadly, Graham Johnson was recovering from serious illness, and ended the first half with a selection of English songs including slightly sanitised versions – after all, we were in a church! – of Lord Berners’ Red Roses and Noël Coward’s Alice is at it again, and, as well as displaying all her usual vocal virtues, she gave an object lesson in getting every word across in a resonant acoustic.  Hamish Milne opened the second part with as exhilarating a Chopin A flat Ballade as one could hope to hear and stunning performances of his favourite Medtner.

The two trios played by Benjamin Nabarro, Matthew Sharpe and Leslie Howard were an aptly contrasted pair with Beethoven at something approaching his most urbane in the Opus 70/2 Trio in E flat and Mendelssohn at his most Beethovenian in his C minor trio, both heard at the 2008 Festival.  All the charm of the Beethoven was on display whilst the Mendelssohn received as fine a performance as it is possible to imagine.  It fully deserved its unexpected encore, a short piece for violin and cello written by Leslie Howard for his mother’s 80th birthday, Phyllis’s Fancy, first heard at the final concert of the 2008 Festival and an absolute delight with its nod towards more popular musical culture!  It says something for the quality of the music-making that even after this and at the three-hour mark, the audience was still left shouting for more…

Which, of course, they got just under a week later at the Guildhall!

The programme for the second concert was rather more of a mixed bag with Morgan Szymanski following the performance of his Sarabande with Barrios’s Una Limosna por el amor de Dios, and Oliver Cox eloquent in Evelyn Glennie’s Little Prayer before the two came together in a pair of delightful waltzes by Antonio Lauro –  all music heard here in 2008.

High seriousness immediately ensued with Schumann’s rarely heard Op.107 songs although Graham Johnson’s introduction smoothly bridged the potential chasm and the songs themselves were wonderfully well sung by Kate Royal, a very fast rising young soprano who deservers every bit of her already considerable reputation.  Graham himself was still far from fully recovered and it was a more than generous gesture on his part to appear.

Contrast again with Martinu’s Czech Dances superbly played by Libor Novacek (yet again something heard in Bulawayo only a few weeks earlier) and deservedly raising smiles as well as an ovation before the first half ended with Schubert’s loveable A major Duo, Libby Wallfisch and Leslie Howard extracting all its charm and lyricism in a delightfully relaxed performance.

Piers Lane was ravishing in Chopin’s Op.posth. C sharp minor Nocturne and then rang the changes with a vengeance in a wickedly funny performance of Dudley Moore’s famous Beethoven spoof before Fiona MacDonald and Kathryn Hannah, accompanied by Christopher Gould, joined in mezzo mellifluousness in three very varied duets – Purcell’s Sound the Trumpet, the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman and the Skye Boat Song.  (Incidentally Kathryn’s mother, Barbara Bodmer, spent her early years in Bulawayo and Dorothy Sibson was her godmother.)

Liszt provided the finale with three Hungarian Rhapsodies for increasing numbers of pianists.  Leslie Howard played No.13 in A minor with all the melancholy, panache and swagger for which it calls and the notorious repeated note passage brilliantly executed.  He was joined by Coady Green in Liszt’s own piano duet version of the most famous of the rhapsodies, No.2 in D minor which generated a tremendous head of steam by the end, and they were in turn joined by Piers Lane and Michael Brownlee Walker for Liszt’s only known piece for eight hands at two pianos, an arrangement of the Rákóczy March.  The spectacle in itself was entertaining, the playing terrific and no encore could have followed this barn-storming conclusion to a remarkable pair of concerts – although we hope to surpass it in the present festival!
How the money was used

After all expenses, the concerts cleared, to be precise, £33 188.23 and so the 2010 Festival started with a guaranteed £11 000.00 whilst the Academy acquired twice that amount, and that share was put to good use: All pianos in need of attention received it with new hammers, actions overhauled, etc., and all nineteen pianos are now in the best possible shape. There were extensive alterations and improvements to the kitchen so that there are now two, one for the Academy’s use and one for the coffee shop and major functions. A carport for five cars was constructed, a good second-hand car acquired, considerable work done in the grounds which probably look better than they ever have, many minor improvements made including lighting inside and out, fans, repairs to floors and much else including the acquisition of quantities of books, music and CDs for the library, 80 kilos worth of which were sent from England – and door-to-door took a exactly a week!  A fountain was installed as a direct consequence of the London Concerts as Sir Howard Davies heard of the Academy through them and made a specific donation in memory of an old family friend. Sadly it is yet to achieve its desired form but that work is currently high on the agenda.

Much remains to be done, most notably the driveways, on which a modest start has been made, and air-conditioning for the Sibson Hall. Other plans include the creation of an outside performance area in the angle between Room 25 and the rear of the hall and, mundane but just as necessary, an increased provision of ladies’ toilets. So there’s plenty of work ahead but there can be some satisfaction that, thanks in large measure to the support of many friends in Britain, the Academy has weathered the storms of recent years in pretty good shape.