Beethoven did not take precedence in this concert, but he stole the title. As part of the “Brilliant Beethoven” concert series, the Bristol Ensemble performed the Seventh Symphony of the well-known composer. It was programmed at the end of the evening alongside Debussy, Vivaldi and current composer Alexis Alrich. The theme connecting the different works was rhythm. A prelude, two concertos and a symphony later, Colston Hall was near to having its audience tap-dancing – well, at least on my row. The last three pieces of the evening were competitively catchy.

Dame Evelyn Glennie
Dame Evelyn Glennie

The Beethoven symphony was overshadowed by an electric performance of composer Alexis Alrich’s Marimba Concerto, its UK première. World-premièred in Hong Kong in 2009 by the Hong Kong City Orchestra, this action-packed piece injected fresh energy into the whole room. It is one of the most interesting concert compositions I have seen on stage in Bristol and it stole the show.

Alrich’s style, “California Impressionism”, is inspired by French Impressionism, American Minimalism and Asian music. The score had a similar energetic and rhythmic feel to the film scores of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, whilst intricately exploring the marimba. The dexterity required for the marimba part was perfectly suited to the ever-amazing Dame Evelyn Glennie. Her agile performance makes her fascinating to watch in concert. She becomes part of the instrument, expressively leaning into it and using her whole body to create the sounds she desires.

The awe-inspiring solo percussionist entered in leather trousers and immediately stole my attention from anything else on stage. Well, almost anything – aside from being a great composition with an excellent soloist, the sound balance of the orchestra felt a little off-kilter, as was the case for most of the concert. This led to a few distracting moments on the orchestral side, particularly within the percussion, which meant at times the marimba had to fight through an extra sound barrier. Also, the approach to conducting was all too casual at times – during one solo, conductor Ben Gernon even put his hands in his pockets. Luckily, Glennie had an acute awareness of the orchestra throughout both percussion concertos and was able to adjust dynamics effortlessly to fit. Her performance was bold and truly tireless. The tone she achieved with the marimba was so wholesome it almost sounded electronic, which gave a completely new dimension to the orchestration.

The Bristol Ensemble themselves are a talented group of musicians. A beautiful flute solo with just the right amount of purity to it, and not too much vibrato, opened the concert in Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune. This piece was a suitable forethought in the programme, providing a dreamlike state before the punchy rhythms of the other three works. It also connected to the rest of the programme through the Impressionism-inspired qualities of Alrich’s concerto, and hearing the Debussy beforehand aided understanding of this work.

Not only is she good at playing the instruments, she is also good at arranging for them. The highlight for the orchestra in this concert was Vivaldi’s Flautino Concerto in C major. Arranged by Evelyn Glennie for vibraphone and orchestra, this was an old concerto spiced up. The piece was much more lenient with tempi than the original, giving Glennie the chance to revel in the lovely metallic sound of the vibraphone. Her impressive speed in the contrapuntal melody lines was Paganini-esque to the point that the speed of her mallets was similar to that of a hummingbird’s wings. This was an inspirational performance.

****1