Jon Lord

Durham Concerto
20th October 2007, Durham Cathedral

With both a student Rag parade and a Durham miners’ band both marching onto Palace Green at the same time, just in front of Durham Cathedral, there was bound to be trouble. Sure enough the cacophony of noise resulting made the old stones shake to their very foundations or so it seemed as Jon Lord’s Durham Concerto conjured up chaotic musical images of just such scenes within that fine cathedral’s nave last night.

Five years in the writing (although Jon admitted in his brief introduction that many of the intermediary deadlines “wooshed” by before much was properly committed to manuscript) Jon’s piece was premiered as part of celebrations of Durham University’s 175th anniversary.

Arriving earlier in the afternoon for a nose around we were surprised to see Jon, looking in good shape and form, already there talking to the conductor, Mischa Damev, and the gathering Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Clustered tightly at the head of the nave between Durham’s exquisite carved pillars and the chancel screen, the orchestra formed a crescent around Jon’s hired Hammond placed dead centre directly in front of the conductor’s dais. It soon became apparent that a rehearsal was imminent so we quickly found places to stand beside one of the pillars to be treated to pretty much the whole Concerto hours earlier than we’d expected! A growing number of visitors stopped their tours to sit down and enjoy the performance. Even such a stop-start performance couldn’t stop the shivers tingling their way up my spine: this was magical stuff. I was very struck by Jon’s obvious epathy with, and enthusiastic encouragement of, the three other soloists: young Ruth Palmer on violin, Matthew Barley on cello and Kathryn Tickell on Northumbrian short pipes. It must be an odd experience to hand over a composition you have conceived and nurtured so carefully to a conductor to interpret and shape into a performance piece, but Jon seemed to behave just as the other soloists and not at all like the intrusive and over-protective parent one might imagine a composer being in such a circumstance. Proceedings were brought to an abrupt halt by an orchestra administrator bang on 4pm. It had been an extraordinary privilege to able witness this final rehearsal and watch how conductor, soloists and composer worked together. Also, given the nave’s flat floor, we knew we would probably have nowhere near as good a view later at the performance proper.

With light fading we gathered at the back of the cathedral whilst various invited guests, city and university dignitaries were allowed to take their places at the head of the nave first, before us paying customers were allowed to take out seats. Having been so keen to attend that I’d pestered first the University and then the Tourist Office half to death for tickets in the lead up, it is perhaps no surprise that I’d managed to secure tickets numbers 1 and 2. However the tickets themselves made it clear that there were to be no numbered seats so I was relieved to get places pretty much in the first row after those taken up by the guests. The University Vice-Chancellor introduced the event and Jon but not without committing the crime of telling us Deep Purple had disbanded after Jon’s departure (though I imagine there are some that wish they had). Jon quickly put that error right before telling us a little of the inspiration behind this six movements in three parts (morning, afternoon and evening) piece we were about to hear. This coupled with further detailed background in the programme meant we had a clear focus for the pictures in our heads in the next hour or so.

The first part (“The Cathedral at Dawn” and “Durham Awakes”) begins ever so gently with birdsong and prayers clearly signalled in the music soon followed by the jumbled noises of a city coming to life and building to a glorious sunrise (one of my favourite bits) that reminded me just how loud and powerful a full orchestra can sound. Anyone expecting to hear raucous Hammond in antagonistic confrontation with the orchestra as in Jon’s first concerto piece was in for a disappointment. This piece was very much about Jon the composer, not Jon the soloist. Indeed at times one almost forgot that the Hammond is not a normal orchestral instrument, so subtle was Jon’s own contribution as a player.

The second part (“The Road from Lindisfarne” and “From Prebends Bridge”) is at times melancholy and moving with some exquisite playing from all three other soloists recalling both the history of the city’s links with St Cuthbert and the glorious views around the river bends below the Cathedral built to hold his shrine.

Part three has the imagined clash between students and miners alluded to earlier, beginning if memory serves with Jon’s one glorious smear along the length of the Hammond’s keyboard for the evening. The complex chaotic music Jon has used to bring these scenes to life must be a huge challenge, and not without considerable risk involved, for both orchestra and conductor alike which both pulled off magnificently. Violin soloist Ruth Palmer is a hugely energetic player with a wonderful playing sound who was really giving it some welly at times. I couldn’t help noticing Jon had a smile on his lips throughout most of this movement, it’s full of fun, competition and excitement. Order is restored in the final movement with echoes of some of the themes that had appeared earlier and the conductor leaping about furiously as everyone comes together in powerful unison as night finally returns.

The whole audience were quickly on their feet clapping furiously at the end. I wonder how many of the invited guests in particular came with slightly jaundiced preconceptions of what a rock musician’s composition might turn out to be like? I bet there were more than one or two with hugely changed opinions by the end. Jon’s composition is a complex and accomplished piece of work that, for me at least, more than adequately conveys the images he set out to portray. It was a tremendous evening that more than lived up to my expectations.

We noticed plenty of microphones set up and even a few small video cameras around. We gathered that the audio recording might even be aired by Classic FM radio in the UK sometime in the future: we’ll see.

I never thought I’d find myself saying something like this but I’m so pleased Jon had the courage to step away from the almost permanent touring monster that Deep-Purple had become by ’02 and give himself the space to let his composing talents have wider reign. This piece more than justifies his having taken that risk. Jon has extraordinary talent far beyond that of being simply an exceptional rock organist and we’d have missed out on so much if he had simply stayed playing the old classics night after night. I’m now look forward to hearing the studio recording of this concerto, laid down in July I think, when it is eventually released. Now if only we could get him to tour over here with his Gemini band...

review: Peter L. Judd.

This is certainly Jon's most overtly classical work to date (at least  that we've heard in the UK), with only the slightly unconventional  but understandable inclusion of  Northumbrian pipes and the Hammond  organ to what would otherwise be the regular (and on this showing  very top notch) Liverpool Philharmonic. The evening was introduced by  Jon Lord himself who described the thinking behind the new piece. The Durham Concerto is in six movements, each inspired by an aspect  of the town and the countryside around. Some were mood pieces, very  emotional indeed at times, while at other points Jon allowed himself  to stray a little outside what might be expected in a classical  piece, particularly in the Rags And Galas movement, which brought  together elements of student life and the County Durham mining  heritage. There was no applause until the very end (unlike the  rehearsals which had elicited spontaneous applause at one point) when  the audience rose to give the soloists, conductor and the Orchestra a  well deserved standing ovation.

It was a real experience to see a classical piece like this coming  together. Lord's Hammond was placed centrally, with the soloists to  the front and the strings at his sides, with the rest of the  orchestra fanning out behind. All this was squeezed into the crossing  underneath the central tower. It's not an ideal place for an  orchestra,  but it's not hard to see why they would want to hold the  premier here. Such had been the demand for tickets that the  organisers had set up another 150 seats in the side aisles to try and  cater for this.

The soloists were excellent. I'm reliably told that there is no better player of the Northumbrian pipes than Kathryn Tickell, and I  can believe it. Lord's own work fitted into the overall sound so well  that you couldn't always be sure when he was playing or not. At other  times he would suddenly emerge from the sound in dramatic fashion and  bring a flash of drama to the moment.

The performance was being recorded by Classic FM for airing soon, if  anyone finds out when do drop us an email. There were special  programmes. These were not for sale, but given to each ticket holder  on arriving at their seat.

review: Simon Robinson . See also a gallery of photos from Durham.

photos : Durham University

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