It’s Thursday night and the bars and pubs in Shoreditch are lit up and pumping out music into the cold November air.
I have come to an album launch of Stratford-Upon Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan. It’s an edgy venue at Kachett, under the railway arches in Old Street. Half of the musicians have travelled up to London to perform tracks from the chamber orchestra’s latest album, Labyrinths which releases on 19th of November.
The suitable hidden venue comes with burly doormen who are watching an altercation take place between two drivers at the lights. Cars are at a standstill and tempers flare between a young man and woman. All eyes are fixed on the woman to ensure her safety. Both drivers get in their cars before I am eventually let in.
It’s the perfect place for the Orchestra of the Swan, whose remit these days is to perform outside traditional concert halls and to bring its music to everyone.
David Le Page, solo violinist, and Artistic Director of Orchestra of the Swan has produced an enlightened musical programme to suit a younger audience with maybe less exposure to classical music.
Orchestra of the Swan is becoming known for its radically new arrangements in the baroque and rock world – mixing it up – Purcell and Joy Division, Rameau, and Radiohead. Schubert has been jazzified, Bowie’s Heroesslowed down to produce a more regal, classical sound.
Two records have emerged from this surprising initiative. Timelapse, the first album, released in January 2021, proved immediately popular on Classic FM and Scala and garnered a remarkable four million audio streams.
Listening to Schubert’s Sleep Softly from the Timelapse album, I can understand why. Its grandiose opening with mournful theme is exquisite. David Le Page bursts in on his violin and performs a magnificent bohemian, jazzy number. Sleep Softly switches genre from classical – to jazz – back to classical, seamlessly. Duet by Steve Reich, is utterly mesmeric and unforgettable with its echoing, intermingling repetitions on violin and cello. Meanwhile Le Page’s arrangement of Satie’s Gnossiennes 1 is beautifully slow and seductive, the exoticism and dance beautifully reproduced on the strings. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Gnossiennes 1 has proved the most popular track on Timelapse, getting 342,000 hits on Spotifier the last time I checked.
What is developed with studio technology is one thing. On the Kachette night – the tracks, taken mostly from the second album, Labyrinths, were performed live. Here the audience could see the true calibre of the classically trained musicians. David Le Page played with a predominantly, and I have to say, amazingly coordinated female string section, who played as one, together with David Gordon on keyboard and Trish Clowes on saxophone.
La Rotta, an anonymous work was the orchestra’s first offering and a marvellously irreverent and joyous medieval jig with bongos and mad sax. Trish Clowes’s Bounce was not an arrangement, but a new composition with Bernstein undertones and unusual jumpy rhythms. It was surprisingly upbeat for a lockdown work. In it the unravelling joy and freedom Clowes might have felt at the time came across loud and clear. Purcell’s What Power Art Thou sung by Jim Moray had punch, whereas Radiohead’s Pyramid Song lacked pizzazz. The Rameau ‘Triptych’ wrapping the show was a joy.
Post-performance members of the audience were discussing their favourite tracks. Everyone produced a different answer. One participant in the evening however, clearly a purist, had a yearning to hear Mozart played straight!
Of course, musical tinkering is nothing new. It has gone on for centuries. Orchestra of the Swan has gone one step further by mixing musical genres. Timelapse and Labyrinths are dazzling examples of what can be achieved by mixing the old and the new. Seeing them perform live showed me the sheer musicianship of David Le Page and his orchestra. This is an orchestra to watch out for.
Timelapse and Labyrinths are released on https://signumrecords.com/?s=orchestra+of+the+swan and streaming platforms. Labyrinths on the 19th November.
For more information on Orchestra of the Swan’s Autumn/Winter 2021-22 Concerts https://orchestraoftheswan.org