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THE PLEASURES OF INFORMALITY, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 13th June 1959

Exciting, exceptional and exhilarating are the only words to describe the concert in the S.D.M. Chambers last Tuesday. The public were admitted, and shame on them, only several came. We were to witness an object-lesson in plumbing the heights.

The first item (not on the programme) was a mysterious but splendid delay of twenty minutes.

The group of seventeenth-century madrigals by such celebrated names as Chippett, Madding and Brown were an excellent choice. The conductor was gaily waving his arms, but the singers gracefully declined to take any notice either of him or of each other. Perhaps even, with laudable individuality, they were not singing the same pieces, though the programme announced that they were. The second tenor had quite a number of bold gratuitous falas, especially one after all the rest had stopped singing, which he allowed to peter out in a masterly if unpremeditated diminuendo. Perhaps we should have enjoyed this excellent touch more often, had not the singer seized-up with hay-fever, thus providing a delightful ostinato throughout the remaining madrigals. They sounded quite modern.

A lady pianist followed with a Suite for Harpsichord by Ebenezer Cogden. The substance and performance of this work were much enhanced by the soloist’s simpers, which were constant and delectable. It was as if she were but newly making shy acquaintance with the instrument. The work sounded surprisingly modern. It was soon over, for the page-turner turned two pages at once, and we were spared the corante and two minuetts. It was a pity that the lady's heel, after much good work at the loud pedal, got stuck in an open knot-hole in the floor-boards, so that on rising to acknowledge our plaudits, she lost shoe and balance, and fell fiat on her face in a pot of raddled marguerites.

We were then regaled by apparently fine rendering of a dramatic aria of Coglione. Someone chose this moment, however, to start a change-ringing practice in a near-by belfry, so we did not hear a note. Doubtless every single one was delicious, even if the total effect of the work may have been quite modern. It was a joy to perceive the singer’s blushes of surprise and pleasure when, as he paused for breath during the second ritornello (which was no more audible than the first), the audience broke into spontaneous applause, thinking this perplexing dumb-show had spent itself.

The concert’s highlight was an “orchestra” rendering the Symphonic Variations by Amterbilt. It could not start at first as there was a shortage of chairs on the stage. The first cellist gallantly offered his seat to a lady flautist, and joined the troupe of players ransacking the audience. Our thin attendance permitted the band to find eventual accommodation. Unfortunately the percussion had not arrived, as someone (it was explained to us) had inadvertently lent it to two other societies for this same evening. A common Cambridge hazard. But the composer was well served. The glockenspielist and sidedrummer shared the top of a desk which was there, standing on their chairs to do so. Meanwhile the timpanist was quite happy with an inverted tub, a dwarf rhododendron being evicted for the occasion.

Apart from the first cellist getting cramp during a beautiful solo, and the trumpeter burning his fingers on a cigarette stub during his many bars of rest, all went ludicrously well till the climax of the second movement. The conductor raised his baton vigorously. It flew over his shoulder, executing a neat parabola, and came to rest in the capacious hat of a lady sleeping in the stalls. As she did not wake, a neighbour retrieved the baton and returned it to the conductor with a profuse exchange of courtesies. The orchestra had in the meantime proceeded. But the conductor halted them and called for letter C. This caused another delay, as letter C did not appear to be in everybody’s copy. So the second movement was dropped, and we went on to the last, finishing the work more or less together. A marvellous feat, considering many of the players were sight-reading in a bad light. Though written in 1857, this piece sounded quite modern. When it ended, the sleeping lady still slept on. It was then discovered that she had died peacefully, probably (out of courtesy) during the interval. A charming death. And a most satisfactory concert.

Peter Tranchell

Attentive readers will have spotted that this paragraph is essentially identical to one in the similar article on ‘A May-Week Concert’ published on 31 May 1952; and that the opening has the same ‘twenty-minute delay’. Ed.