Review: Lichfield Festival steers a course to delight

Planning and running a festival under the ever-shifting Covid-19 rules must be like a supertanker crew trying to steer their way through a treacherous archipelago, with a wildly fluctuating compass, a failed autopilot, and a helmsman with one hand tied behind his back.

Tommy Smith performed at Lichfield Cathedral. Photo by John Watson.
Tommy Smith performed at Lichfield Cathedral. Photo by John Watson.

But the Lichfield Festival team, led by director Damian Thantrey, safely steered the event to another great success, despite having to run the 10-day festival before lockdown restrictions were lifted.

A few artists had to cancel but were replaced, sometimes at short notice, by some marvellous UK-based players, many playing their first live concerts in 18 months.

In the Young Artists series, cellist Toby White gave two performances on Wednesday at Wade Street Church. Accompanied by pianist Marina Staneva, White delighted the audience with dynamic interpretations of Britten’s turbulent and fiendishly complex Sonata Op.65, the flowing Saint-Saens Sonata No.1, and concluding with the shimmering textures and marvellously pounding rhythms of the Astor Piazzolla classic Le Grand Tango.

In the city’s cathedral, the seven sublime voices of the acclaimed ensemble I Fagiolini combined with narrator Jessica Walker in a project titled Re-wilding The Waste Land, vocal pieces and poems exploring the theme of desolation and renewal.

I could have simply revelled in the glorious music uninterrupted by narration, with pieces from many eras, including William Byrd’s Deus, venerunt gentes Joanna Marsh’s Four Re-wildings, and Shruthi Rajasekar’s Rebirth Of A River. But the concept of blending music and speech, with such a strong and relevant theme, created a truly worthwhile project.

The seven voices reverberated majestically around the cathedral stonework - and the following night there was more magnificent resonance in the building, from the rich sound of a solo tenor saxophone.

Scottish sax master Tommy Smith has been on a short tour of cathedrals: opening at St Machar’s in Aberdeen, closing on Saturday at St Giles in Edinburgh, and with Thursday’s Lichfield date in between.

It was Smith’s second trip to the Lichfield Festival - several years ago he appeared as leader of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, with Japanese pianist Makoto Ozoneas soloist.

Solo saxophone performances are rare, and challenging, but Smith triumphed with a programme including jazz ballads, improvisations on popular tunes, and folk songs.

He opened his concert off-stage, the distant cry of the tenor growing nearer, with a plaintive sound evoking the cattle-call cries heard in Nordic folk music - the style known in Sweden as “kulning”. As he came on stage, the theme evolved to include Nature Boy from the repertoire of Nat King Cole, Round Midnight by pianist Thelonious Monk, and Over The Rainbow from The Wizard Of Oz.

Other elaborate improvisations followed, including the ballad Angel Eyes, saxophone legend John Coltrane’s Naima, and a rarity by Duke Ellington, Single Petal Of A Rose.

As the weekend drew to a close, the Trio Mazzolini stepped in at St Michael’s Church to replace the advertised Mithras Trio, who had been stricken by a positive Covid test. Violinist Jack Greed, cellist Yurie Lee and pianist Harry Rylance performed a youthfully exuberant Haydn Piano Trio in C major, explored the desolate ambiguities of an un-named piano trio by Judith Weir, and concluded with a lovely version of the Debussy Piano Trio in G major, with its sublimely lyrical Andante movement. Splendid.

Review by John Watson

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