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The Sixteen with Julian Joseph at Kings Place

The Sixteen with Julian Joseph
(King’s Place
. Sound Unwrapped series. 27 January 2023. Review by Rachel Coombes)

Harry Christophers directing The Sixteen with Julian Joseph and Mark Hodgson. Photo credit: Viktor Erik Emanuel. 

“Well, it certainly doesn’t look like a jazz audience”, I overheard someone say during the interval of Friday evening’s concert at King’s Place with The Sixteen and the British jazz pianist Julian Joseph. While I was not tempted to jump in and enquire what a “jazz audience” might look like, it certainly made me consider the potential motivations of those at the event. A conversation with my neighbour seated in the stalls confirmed the ‘star quality’ of the Sixteen (she had travelled from Ireland just to see them), and heightened my hunch that a top quality performance of early Baroque music by Monteverdi was the main draw, with or without jazz. Under the leadership of its founder Harry Christophers, the choir and period instrument ensemble have set a benchmark for contemporary choral performance, spanning medieval polyphony to modern experimental classical compositions. Their collaboration with Julian Joseph on Friday demonstrated their openness to ventures that reconfigure familiar classical territories. Joseph’s formidable musicianship – both as composer and performer – offered the promise of an equally-matched partnership that might prove the potential for a rich dialogue between two apparently contrasting musical languages.

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Of course, fusing beloved classical works with the language of jazz is not in itself an original endeavour (we might think of Jacques Loussier, the Baroque Jazz Trio and Christina Pluhar’s l’Arpeggiata as among the most prominent examples). But the set up of tonight’s performance was less one of ‘fusion’ and more of stirring contrast. A sequence of works from Monteverdi’s collection of sacred music Selva morale e spirituale (1640-41) was interspersed with ‘responses’ from Joseph on piano and Mark Hodgson on the double bass. The programme dutifully listed each of Monteverdi’s works followed by ‘+ jazz’ to indicate Joseph’s and Hodgson’s contributions. Only on two relatively brief occasions (for a musical ‘introduction and a ‘segue’ section) did ‘Baroque’ and ‘jazz’ truly come together in tantalizing synergy.

Julian Joseph (centre) with members of The Sixteen. Photo credit: Viktor Erik Emanuel. 

Building (subtly at times, overtly at others) on the harmonic architecture and melodic shapes of Monteverdi’s compositions, Joseph crafted succinct, energetic interludes to these exquisite choral works. Continuities between the two musical styles were certainly played upon. The basso continuo tradition of Baroque music came to seem comparable to the ‘anchoring’ role played by the double bass in jazz. We also saw glimpses of a kinship between the ornate flourishes on the harpsichord (played by Alastair Ross) and the improvisatory bursts of modern jazz. But, ultimately, this was not an equal partnership; as soon as one’s ear became attuned to the subtly of Joseph’s pianistic meditations, the strident lines of Monteverdi returned. Not enough musical space was given for the expansion of Joseph’s musical ideas, and at times his passages felt like interruptions rather than worthwhile developments. The ambition behind the concert was a worthwhile one, the musical calibre was faultless, and there was undoubtedly a sense of playfulness to the event, but the collaboration felt a little superficial, and could have been pushed further.

LINK: Further events in Sound Unwrapped

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