Paul offers insight into his experiences in helping The Sunflower Jam create the unique musical evening that was a successful celebration of Jon Lord and a life time of his music. This is part 2 of 3.
Read a detailed run through of the first half including details on the pieces and parts that had never been performed live before.
by Rasmus Heide
Having seen Jon perform with several different orchestras over the years, I can only say I’d rarely heard his music performed as well as it was at Celebrating Jon Lord – even allowing for Jon’s absence.
– Well, that’s lovely to hear of course! I would say straight off that it was clear from the first couple of minutes of rehearsal that the Orion Orchestra had their hearts in exactly the right place for this. I was afraid they might have thought they were just there to play lots of long string chords behind a rock band. But there was none of that – they grasped very quickly the true scope of what they were being asked to do.
– It’s a tall order for an orchestra to be so many things at once: playing rhythmically intricate symphonic music such as the Durham Concerto, providing hard-edged backing for rock songs, as well as subtle and lyrical accompaniments. It was all in there, from one extreme to the other, which is of course a tribute to Jon’s unique scope as a composer, but also to this young orchestra’s ability to encompass so many things in such a short time.
– One of the things I did in the preparation for this concert, having made the new editions, was to set about re-studying them as if they were by just another composer, someone I didn’t know. I wanted to keep my approach to the music fresh – you know those wonderful T.S. Eliot lines, “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Let’s look at the setlist and start with Fantasia from Sarabande and the excellent decision of opening with this.
– I’m glad you appreciated that. It’s one of the few things that maintained its place in the setlist right through all the drafts, and I always envisaged it as the best way to raise the curtain. It’s not just the big gestures of the music, with those trumpet fanfares and swirling tam-tams, but also that lyrical episode in the middle that is so very Jon in its pastoral Englishness. The piece is an outburst of joy, containing a moment of reflection, which somehow encapsulated the intention behind the show as a whole.
I know you wanted Durham Concerto in particular to be part of the concert. Why was this?
– I wanted to make sure that there was something to represent Jon’s purely classical work, and I feel very strongly about the Durham Concerto for slightly personal reasons, which I can speak about a bit.
– One of the things I realized when I started to examine all Jon’s musical material after his death was just how unbelievably hard he worked in those last ten years or so. He drove himself very very hard, and never more so than in the composition of the Durham Concerto.
– He really struggled to finish the piece – it was a huge commission, and he had so many ideas that he was fighting to contain the proliferation of material, and at a certain point the size of the piece was in danger of out-Mahlering Mahler!
– He’d reached a real impasse with it, and he and I got together one day to try and get him out of it. He played me a lot of stuff, and in the end he threw out quite a lot of music intended for the piece that he really loved, but which he knew was straining the dimensions too far. With typical Jon resilience and discipline, he was able to wrestle the whole thing back under control, and it turned out to be one of his most successful larger-scale forms.
– But when the premiere came around, it was a very busy time for me and I couldn’t go. I’m sorry to say that I never felt I showed him how truly I appreciated this piece and how much admiration I had for the way he persevered when the going got so tough with it. I think it was a major milestone on the compositional journey of his last ten years.
– I will conduct the whole work in its new edition for the first time, in Hagen, Germany next May, an orchestra that has already done a huge amount for Jon’s music – he was composer in residence with them for the last year of his life. I hope this will be a way for me, albeit belatedly, to show him how strongly I feel about the work.
– There were a couple of other candidates for the classical ‘slot’ – including the slow movement of Boom of the Tingling Strings, of which I know he was especially fond. I also wanted to find a place for De Profundis which I think is a very important Jon piece, but neither of these made the final cut.
De Profundis would certainly have found a lot of ears in the audience – for all its obvious quotes and general energy. Do you think Boom of the Tingling Strings would have fared as well? I know you recorded it, so it must have a special place in your heart, but it is one of Jon’s most accomplished and possibly less accessible works (not counting Windows which is downright avant-garde in places). Am I rattling your cage with these observations?
– Not at all. Windows of course is a rather experimental piece, and is not entirely composed by Jon – part of it, as you know, is the work of Eberhard Schoener. At present, the material seems to be lost and so it will take a lot more time for us to be able to revisit that.
– As for Boom, it has a special place in my heart not least because it is dedicated to me. But I think it is in many ways Jon’s most truly classical work. He poured into it many of the things he had been longing to say for a very long time. It’s an uncompromising and demanding listen. It’s also much longer than he originally intended it to be – 35 as opposed to 20 minutes!
– I think, on reflection, to have excerpted the slow movement at the RAH wouldn’t have worked – it needs the other movements around it to make complete sense of the music – and there are no other parts of it that could comfortably be taken out of context.
Was Durham Awakes performed in the arrangement also recorded for CD?
– It was from the new revised score, which has undergone some slight retouches in the orchestration, based on changes Jon made subsequent to the recording. But substantially it is the same.
– On reflection, I think De Profundis might also have been a bit recherché for the show, although I love the way Jon weaves all those Deep Purple quotes into the music, and its significance is obvious.
More recherché than One from the Meadow?
– We wanted to do One from the Meadow partly because I found among the material on Jon’s composing computer a fully orchestrated introduction to the song from around 2008 that as far as I could tell had never been played. It seems he had intended to make a full orchestral version of the song to tag onto it, but obviously didn’t finish that whenever he realised that the intro wouldn’t be used.
– So in order to rescue the intro, I completed the orchestration of the song myself, again trying to follow Jon’s style, keeping to the orchestration he’d used for the intro. So this was one of the show’s premieres.
– I think Margo Buchanan sang the song especially beautifully – she really got inside it, and made it her own.
The evening offered another world premiere in All Those Years Ago, the song Jon recorded with Steve Balsamo back in 2010 and which has now been released as part of the book of the same name. How did you approach this song when the original recording only has piano and Balsamo’s voice.
– All Those Years Ago was a special case, and was actually the last thing I finished for the concert, only about three weeks beforehand. The demo is just Jon and Steve, but a solo string arrangement was done by Ben Robbins and dubbed into this for the recorded version included with the recent book.
– It’s extremely subtle and very beautiful, but for the RAH it needed something on a bigger scale. So Ben very kindly gave me his original material, and I borrowed some of it on which to base my own version for full string orchestra. I tried to keep in mind what Jon himself might have done – in particular by avoiding the wrong kind of sentimentality in the writing, using the full glow of the entire string group at only one climactic point. (Exactly as Jon did in Wait a While.)
– But it’s a song that touches a nerve, and there’s danger in loading it with too much sugar. I hope I avoided that.
– The violin and slide guitar preamble was Anna Phoebe‘s idea. We just asked the orchestra to hold a note while she and Micky [Moody] improvised. It was a lovely way to start the song. It worked very beautifully – and was one of the happiest accidents of the whole thing.
Pictured Within touched all the happy and sad emotion at the same time – and Miller Anderson did himself and everybody else proud once again. If only one piece would have been played it would have been this, surely.
– Yes of course, Pictured Within was always going to be a highlight of the show. Of everything we played, it seems to have moved people the most.
– Miller was one of the first people the Sunflower Jam invited. As beautifully as others have sung it, (especially Steve Balsamo), it’s Miller’s song and he has a unique way with it. I’ve conducted it with him many times, including throughout the Concerto tour, and I played it on the piano with him at Jon’s funeral, but I think what he did at this show was something special even by his standards.
– Miller is a marvellous example of how much more powerful, how much more penetrating and moving it is when someone with their heart in the right place just stands there and sings. The emotion is channeled through the song, and not artificially painted onto it. Illuminated from within.
And no changes to the arrangement?
– No, except that the score had never been written out properly before, so this was the first use of the new edition.
– I must also say here how huge an asset it was to have Nigel Hopkins on the show. I first met Nige at Jon’s funeral, where he played with Steve Balsamo. He’s one of the finest all-round keyboard players I could imagine, and at the RAH he covered all those piano parts, which are so enduringly associated with Jon, with such assurance and sensitivity. Of course his Hammond and synth work is equally brilliant.
– Also Matthew Barley, who played the cello solo part on Pictured Within and in the Durham Concerto excerpt. This is one of the many happy coincidences in the Jon universe – Matthew and I were contemporaries at school, and without knowing the connection, Jon struck up a friendship with him which resulted in the dedication of Air on the Blue String, and later the cello solo part of the Durham Concerto. So it was perfect having him there too.
– Incidentally, with Pictured Within I had a feeling there’d be a round of applause at the beginning. I held the first note for a bit longer in case the recognition came from only that – but it happened in the second bar!
Let’s talk about the two Sarabande pieces, another obvious favourite album of Jon’s. The 2010 arrangement was glorious, and I assume you worked from this. But first, why these two particular pieces? Jon used to do Bourree and Gigue at his own concerts.
– There were sheer practical reasons not to do the Gigue – the keyboard parts are extremely difficult for a start, and in the planning stages we didn’t know who we’d have as keyboard players. (Jon confessed to making a mess of the beginning at the 2010 performance – he later said he’d looked down at his fingers and wondered what they were doing.)
– When I made the new edition, I tried out that keyboard writing, and it is tricky! Also the long Bach quote in the middle, which is an extended transcription of the Gigue from Bach’s 4th English Suite, which he had played as a kid – that’s not easy either, and of course it’s overdubbed on the recording, but live you’d need at least two players to cover it.
– Also it contains long improvised solos for drums and Hammond, whereas the others are more concise and through-composed. So, all things considered, I thought it best avoided for the purposes of the concert.
– I should say that I only recently realized that Sarabande itself (the track rather than the whole piece) contains one of Jon’s best musical jokes. The ending quotes very clearly from the closing bars of Vaughan Williams‘ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one of Jon’s favourite orchestral pieces. But it took me until now to realise that the rest of it is also based on the Vaughan Williams; the Brubeck-like bass line and the main theme are disguised quotations from the Tallis theme. So Jon transformed Vaughan-Williams’ stately tone-poem into a jazz-rock waltz! I never realised this while Jon was alive, and of course he never mentioned it. I can imagine him saying “well, you got there in the end.”
– Bourree is also very clever – if on the surface of it, a fusion of Eastern European folk music and rock might not seem very appealing. But it works so brilliantly well.
– So, all things considered, the framework of those three Sarabande pieces was a useful structure around which to hang the rest of the first half.
– Did you enjoy the violin players standing up?
I did indeed. It gave me a jolt and I nearly got up as well. Very exciting. Actually this concert was the first time I felt the orchestra come as much to the fore in the sound as the music requires. The violin players standing up underlined the power of it all. Great idea!
– At first I just thought it would be fun to ask the solo violin to stand up, like a gypsy fiddler, and then I thought, well why not make them all stand up, including the violas at the key change. The cellos would have done it as well, if they could!
All these quotes and a references inside Jon’s music are intriguing. I used to have fun recognizing quotes in Purple’s live sets.
– Jon loved word games, anagrams, puns, and of course he was one of the world’s best joke-tellers. His music naturally reflects these things.
– Pictured Within itself contains its own smoke and mirrors. As you know, Elgar dedicated his Enigma Variations ‘to my friends pictured within’, and this was of course Jon’s inspiration for the title. (Elgar himself was another inveterate lover of word games and cryptic messages, and his music is similarly full of them.)
– So the first notes of Jon’s song are quoted from Elgar’s Nimrod variation, from the Enigma. On the same Pictured Within album, in Evening Song we find a highly significant quotation from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Les Adieux.
– It’s hard to say how much of this was deliberate on Jon’s part – as with all composers, it’s dangerous to under-estimate the power of the subconscious. But it’s interesting to find them all the same. And I keep on finding them, as I recently did with Sarabande. It was always one of the joys of our friendship to be able to talk about things like this. I miss that very much.
For the end of the first set you sat down at the piano and played Afterwards together with Jeremy Irons. How did this come about?
– This was the final touch to the set, and it was Vicky Lord‘s idea. It was her wish to include Afterwards, with Jeremy Irons reading the Hardy poem. Her original idea, which would of course have been very beautiful, was to get the audio of Jon’s playing of the track as used on the To Notice Such Things album, and then play it in for Jeremy to speak over. But in spite of my best attempts, it couldn’t be found – it seems that it never existed as a separate track. So I had to play it myself.
– I transcribed Jon’s piano part from the recording (he never wrote it out), and I will say that of everything I had to do that night, this was the hardest, emotionally and musically, and it’s the thing of which I’m proudest in the whole evening. It was difficult to come down in both senses, from the podium, and from the energy of the music, to play something so exposed and intimate. And not to think, even for a moment, ‘aaaarrghh that’s Jeremy Irons!’
Could it be that Jon actually improvised that piano part for the recording while Irons read out the poem?
– Yes, it was probably semi-improvised. Its origins are in the shows he used to do with John Mortimer, and the material was later developed in To Notice Such Things.
How could the piano not have been recorded on a different track to the voice?
– I asked everyone concerned with the recordings, and none of them had the separate piano track, and so it looks as if Jon and Jeremy Irons did the piece together, at the same time, and not as separate tracks. There are places where the music is obviously designed to coincide with the text, underscoring specific lines, so that would be difficult to achieve separately.
Don’t miss out
This interview runs in 3 parts. Among other things in the upcoming 3rd part, Paul Mann discusses the concert’s second half including the world premieres performed and feeling Jon’s presence at the concert.
Part 1: – I gave myself goose-bumps just imagining it.
The set: How we celebrated Jon Lord – full setlist and artist credits.