It’s been 14 months and 3 weeks since I was last in a venue with live music. This week has seen the first return of a live audience in Scotland since March 2020 for a series of lunchtime recitals from Perth Concert Hall, making up the Live and Unlocked programme broadcast on BBC Radio 3. With a strict limit on numbers, socially distanced, masked and electronically checked in, the experience of being back in the same space as a performer felt wonderful, emotional and almost beyond excitement.

Jess Gillam
© Robin Clewley Photography

For the third in the series, saxophonist Jess Gillam was joined by pianist Zeynep Özsuca for a wide ranging mix of music from Dowland to Luke Howard. Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata has the musical fireworks in its central Scherzo, but the opening Elégie was a calm and flowing warm-up, Gillam allowing her long notes to grow in a showcase of control and sensitive phrasing. The animated central movement showed another side with quirky playing and a thrilling partnership of equals with Özsuca’s characterful colouring. The dreamy Déploration with its slow ponderous opening chords is said to be the final piece Poulenc wrote, Gillam’s sensitive phrasing a suitable lamentation.

A short piece by Meridith Monk, Early Morning Melody, a wordless vocal from her pandemic-inspired film Book of Days, was hauntingly played on solo soprano saxophone, Gillam almost suspending time. Dappled Light, a commissioned piece from Luke Howard, was deliciously lyrical underpinned by Özsuca’s rippling piano. Rounding off the segment was Paul Creston’s lively Saxophone Sonata, a work dedicated to Cecil Leeson who was influential in establishing the saxophone as a legitimate orchestral instrument in the US. Gillam and Özsuca gave us a thrilling performance with rhythmic vigour, quirky accents and syncopation. Tranquility gave way to gaiety, cheeky phrases and virtuosic performances, Özsuca somehow managing to turn the pages at lightning speed.  

Zeynep Özsuca
© Robin Clewley Photography

What really impressed was how Gillam wholly inhabited every piece, her entire body in performance completely flowing with the music. The communication between the players was constant, a sideways glance here, a nod there to keep everything on track, but betraying the exciting unpredictability that is live music. The true emotional feel really showed through in Dowland’s solemn Flow my Tears while in Weill’s dark Je ne t’aime pas, Özsuca set the scene for Gillam’s entrancing storytelling, gently teasing us with her bold rubato and languorous phrasing.

Finally, Piazzola’s Histoire du Tango, a piece written for guitar and flute, its first three movements taking us on a tour of passion and fire in different settings: the 1900s Bordello, the 1930s Café and the 1960s Nightclub. Gillam took a jaunty tune as Özsuca set up a flowing beat, but the joy was the changes of mood and colour,  Özsuca rapping on the piano with knuckles at one point, the unison passages and the soprano saxophone's recklessly speedy runs.  The Café tango was more muted and thoughtful, Gillam’s phrasing adding character and restraint before the whirl of the Nightclub added zest and final flourish.

Perth Concert Hall is modern, well ventilated, spacious and normally holds over a thousand people seated.   With indoor event numbers strictly limited to 100 and only rising to 400 at best, it is difficult to see the pathway ahead.     But this has been a wonderful start to getting a real audience back, artistically shell-shocked perhaps, but being part of it was an utter joy.