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Mike Westbrook’s ‘Rossini Re-Loaded’ at West Road, Cambridge

Mike Westbrook & The Uncommon Orchestra. Rossini – Re-Loaded,

Cambridge Modern Jazz at West Road Concert Hall , 27 September 2022. Review by Duncan Heining)

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The ‘Rossini Re-Loaded’ band. Photo credit: Matthew North

Gioachino Rossini danced with the Count – Basie that is, not Almaviva – on this Autumn evening in Cambridge. It is thirty years since Westbrook’s Big Band Rossini featured at the BBC Proms and another eight since his settings from the Italian composer’s operas were premiered in Lucerne with the Brass Band. A new invitation to open the Rossini Festival in Lugo, Italy prompted the work’s much-deserved revival and this thrilling warm-up performance augurs well for the Italian outing.

Critics often miss the wit and humour present in the Westbrooks’ art. It’s as if the high seriousness of Marching Song or The Westbrook Blake means they don’t know how to have fun. Well, Rossini Re-Loaded has that in abundance – there’s back-slapping, roustabout fun aplenty alongside moments of poignancy and passion.

It was good to see saxophonist Pete Whyman in the band. Whyman played the original concert in 1984, appearing on both HatArt “Rossini” albums, and his snake-charmer clarinet was a highlight of the “Overture” from The Barber of Seville. The Thieving Magpie appeared twice – once as a slow march in the first set but as a wild, Latin-jazz romp in the second, with the finest rhythm section money can’t buy (Marcus Vergette, Coach York) on great form.

“Lindoro” (The Barber of Seville) is the longest section in the show with Kate Westbrook singing several of the parts from the sequence where Count Almaviva serenades Rosina. With Kate singing as well as I’ve ever heard her, this section always works even better live than on record. Its gorgeous, limpid piano opening from Mike Westbrook himself was a reminder of the trio of solo piano records he has released in recent times. But it is the way that he creates from Rossini’s original composition a musical narrative to parallel Kate’s singing of the libretto that makes this so successful as music and as theatre. It is tender and charming but its comic disruption by the band and blistering tenor solo from Alan Wakeman is pure burlesque, as is the rustic, village band sequence from “Country Dance” (William Tell).

Further liberties are taken with “Funkin’ Cinderella” (La Cenerentola) with a free duet between Whyman on tenor and Chris Biscoe on alto that is built almost instrument upon instrument into a full band work-out. Westbrook’s setting of “Once Upon A Time” (La Cenerentola) was another highlight with just Kate’s voice and Karen Street’s accordion. In fact, Westbrook’s use of Street’s accordion and Frank Schaefer’s cello throughout did more than add texture and colour. Rather, these instruments coupled perfectly with the rhythm section as if adding a running commentary on proceedings, while the band’s fine brass section added a righteous, hymnal quality to the music.

And so came the finale! It was here that the trumpets and ‘bones led by Graham Russell really came into their own. “Tutto Cangia (Hymn to Liberty”) (William Tell) was as inspiring and uplifting as it was relevant to these times and then it was the final gallop and stirring of the blood into the main theme of the “William Tell Overture”. Rossini’s message was obvious – tyrants always fall for all their wealth and might. All it takes is one little arrow!

PERSONNEL: Kate Westbrook (voice), Mike Westbrook (piano), Ben Cottrell (musical director); Graham Russell, Robin Pengilley, Andy Hague, Sam Massey (trumpets);
Pete Whyman, Chris Biscoe, Sarah Dean, Alan Wakeman, Ian Wellens (saxophones);
Joe Carnell, Sam Chamberlain-Keen, Stewart Stunell, Ashley Nayler, (trombones);
Karen Street (accordion), Frank Schaefer (cello), Marcus Vergette (bass), Coach York (drums).

SET LIST: “Overture A” (William Tell), “Overture B” (The Thieving Magpie), “Lindoro” (The Barber of Seville), “Fête Champêtre” (William Tell), “The Barber” (The Barber of Seville), “Funkin’ Cinderella” (La Cererentola), “Magpie” (The Thieving Magpie), “Once Upon A Time” (La Cererentola), “Idyll” (William Tell), “Country Dance” (William Tell), “Willow Song” (Otello), “Hymn to Liberty” (William Tell), “Gallop” (William Tell).

LINKS: Details of the Lugo (RA) performance in Italy

Mike Westbrook previews the Lugo performance in this interview

Birthday Greetings to Mike Westbrook at 85

6 replies »

  1. …sooo looking forward to enjoying all this – and that, and the other – in Lugo next week… meanwhile you may want to fix a minor typo in the finale, the ‘Hymn to Liberty’ is ‘Tutto cangia’, NOT ‘caglia’… “Tutto cangia, il ciel s’abbella, l’aria è pura, il dì raggiante, la natura è lieta anch’ella”… ciao!

  2. What a brilliant concert! As Mike Westbrook said, this was a fitting way for Cambridge Modern Jazz to celebrate its 50th Anniversary. All best wishes for the Lugo performance!

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