Review: Grand Union Orchestra

Grand Union Orchestra, Rhythm of Tides
(Great Hall, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, June 29th 2010, part of City of London Festival)

A full-length portait of Henry the Eighth stares down from the back wall of the Great Hall of St. Bart’s. The King is just standing there, feet apart, one hand on hip, the other on groin. His expression is pure power-swagger. Perhaps something like: “Do you seriously expect a single brick of your crappy little monastery to be standing by this evening?” Or maybe: “What fart-arse excuse are you going to dream up this time for failing to produce me a male heir?” So, my thought went, can any performer from the Grand Union Orchestra tonight have a hope in matching that level of dominance? Who is going to take hold of this sweltering Tuesday night audience, and leave an impression on them which they won’t forget?

Well, step forward Sadjo Djolo, singer and Kora player from Guinee-Bissau.And sensitive souls, please look away. Djolo starts with one unfair, not to say huge advantage in these stakes: there is no more assertive, priapic musical instrument than the Kora. It sits wedged against the pelvic bone, from which it rises at least two feet above the head. Djolo also has a strong voice full of character, and at several stages of the evening he received, and deservedly, by far the loudest applause. He had two moments to shine, the African overture, and Bambo Bodjan. He grabbed them both. It was definitely his night.

Tony Haynes’ Rhythm of Tides is a highly complex piece. We wrote about it extensively in a preview HERE. Musically, it draws on a huge range of sounds and colours. The other plucked string instruments are an exotic collection: a twelve string Portuguese guitar – expertly played by Gerry Hunt, a sitar – the superb Baluji Shrivastav – a Chinese gu zheng harp – Zhu Ziao Meng. Plus a nimble horn section including some top improvisers – Chris Biscoe and Louise Elliott on reeds, and the well matched Claude Deppa and Paul Jayasinha on trumpets and flugelhorns. A major contributor to the overall effect was Paul Sparrow, the sound engineer, who faced a virtually imposssible task, in a very tricky hall to balance.

The drama of the piece came across well. At one point it has a full-on orchestrated shipwreck, hard to bring off in this acoustic. But these days we get used to projected images. The words and the texts are forced to play a far heavier role in conveying the drama and the polemic of the piece than similar works being written now. Matthew Herbert, say, or Jorjen Van Rijen in “I was Like Wow” don’t think twice about using backprojection to create the experience. Here, the Brechtian Moritat-style singing of Richard Scott was given perhaps too much of the responsibility of conveying the harsh and hectoring anti-war message.

But these are minor quibbles. It was a happy, if a very hot night. There were other real highlights, such as the joyous township feel of “Music at Last”, the final number, or Baluji Shrivastav’s completely improvised sitar introduction to Rag Mumbai, accompanied by Tim Smart‘s everlasting circular-breathed drone on didjeridu.

Grand Union have been a major force in London’s musical life for a quarter of a century. I’m staggered how few people have heard of them. The City of London Festival did well to resurrect this piece, and to give Grand Union a chance to show what they do better than anybody.


Take a look. The City of London Festival programme has all sorts of hidden gems in it. Pages 44 and 45 are particularly full of the most wonderful, mostly free gigs:

There are free evening programmes at Canada Square Park with the Julian Joseph Big Band on Thursday July 8th and the London Symphony Orchestra (yes, for free!) on Friday 9th. Both have 7pm starts.

Monica Vasconcelos brings Brazilian dance classics to the same arena on Saturday 10th at 5 30pm.

Guildhall Yard has lunchtime and evening gigs next week, noteworthy being Frank Griffith’s nonet on Thursday 8th with their Mel Torme/ Marty Paich tribute.

www.colf.org. Festival sponsor is BNY Mellon

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