Francis Bacon’s painting Blood on the Floor shows a splash of blood on a wooden floor, surrounded by orange walls with a light bulb and switch above it. This painting originally inspired Mark-Anthony Turnage to write this one-movement piece of the same name, commissioned by the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern in 1993 and premièred in 1994. After the première it was expanded, also by commission from Ensemble Modern, into a much larger nine-movement piece with a solo jazz quartet and an expanded orchestra. This version was premièred in 1996. Two of the soloists that premièred the piece were also playing it this evening with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, namely drummer Peter Erskine and saxophonist Martin Robertson. The other soloists were guitarist John Parricelli and the Oslo Philharmonic’s own bassist Frode Berg.

Mark-Anthony Turnage © Philip Gatward
Mark-Anthony Turnage
© Philip Gatward

The piece’s nine movements all have different themes, dealing with urban alienation and drug abuse. The second and sixth movements, “Young Addict” and “Elegy for Andy” are both about the composer’s brother Andy, who was a drug addict and died during the composition of the piece. “Young Addict”, named after the Langston Hughes poem of the same name, was composed after Turnage received the news of his brother’s death, and “Elegy for Andy” is based on the music the composer himself performed at his brother’s funeral.

The piece itself straddles the divide between contemporary classical music and jazz, often sounding more like one or the other with rapid shifts of mood and style, especially in the first movement, although it is readily apparent that the piece’s main influence is that of jazz. The music is at times almost brutal and jagged, before suddenly becoming lyrical and soft. Many of the movements also contain improvised solos played by the jazz musicians. There are also solos for orchestral musicians in the fourth and seventh movements, the flute and the trombone respectively. In addition, there are two solo trumpets in the ninth and final movement.

The Oslo Philharmonic’s performance of this piece was exciting. This is not only because the piece itself is exciting, with rapid changes of tempo and style, and a lot of virtuosic orchestral and soloist writing, but it was also very well played. Conductor Jonathan Stockhammer obviously had fun and handled the orchestra very well. He understood his role and stepped back when the jazz musicians played by themselves, especially during the eighth movement, which is played solely by the jazz quartet. But Stockhammer leaving the quartet to play on their own meant that he kept walking around the front of the stage during the eighth movement. This was mainly to set up music stands and such for the solo trumpet players who were to play in the next movement, but it was very distracting to watch and when the music stands were finally up, the view of the jazz musicians was partially blocked. There must have been a more efficient way of dealing with this.

Other than that minor fault (and it was minor in the grand scheme of things), the performance was great. The orchestra played Turnage’s tricky music with conviction and sounded marvellous, although the poor acoustics of the Oslo Concert House made the sound less than ideal, and especially the strings were muffled and did not come through as clearly as one might have wished. But the music itself shone through the poor acoustics and it was a good performance nonetheless. The jazz soloists were excellent, especially Peter Erskine and Martin Robertson. The fact that they had also premièred the piece added some excitement to the performance. Despite the serious and very emotional nature of the piece, there was room for a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the rather fiendish trombone solo of the seventh movement, wonderfully played by principal trombonist Aline Nistad.

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