Leighton Buzzard Music Club : Iain Farrington’s concert ‘A night of light’

On Saturday 17th of March  Iain Farrington made a welcome return to Leighton Buzzard to play a light classical programme. But not the naff, light classical one gets in lifts. Dear me no.

Farrington began with his own arrangement of the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’, which immediately demonstrated his liking for ‘a good tune’ and a light, scampering touch on the piano. He plays in praise of strong, simple melody and harmony.

Big composing names often dash off something lighter between major works. We now enjoyed one such by Elgar. He wrote it late in life, when he had, arguably, already written his best music. Simple little ‘Serenade’ is light and charming and soothes the soul.

William Walton’s ‘Façade’ began life as a single suite for piano and Edith Sitwell bellowing poetry down a megaphone. It also has many half lives. ‘Popular Song’ may be the best known ‘song’ from the suite. It is music which demands one perform a soft shoe shuffle – one long musical witticism: marvellous. Percy Grainger’s ‘Country Garden’ came next. Farrington’s jazz and blues influences brought out nuances of this quintessentially English tune that I’d never heard before.

Billy Mayerl was popular on the radio between the wars, influenced by “stride” piano and ragtime, Art Tatum and Scott Joplin – much like Farrington himself. Three short Mayerl pieces followed. ‘All of a Twist’ was in the Walton mould; furiously fast, bluesy and full of notes. ‘Marigold’ was syncopated in a ‘Kids’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you’ style. ‘Railroad Rhythm’ incorporated the sound of the wheels on the rails, the whistle, the train rushing by and a final mournful hoot as it disappeared.

Both Mayerl and Gershwin had great technique and an ear that enabled them to unify jazz, blues and pop within a classical structure. Three Gershwin pieces arranged by Farrington completed the first half of the programme. ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ was a full-blooded, vibrant musical statement. ‘Someone to watch over me’ had the song peeping through a glorious supporting swirl of music, which finally died away before Farrington launched into ‘I got rhythm’, which became faster and more furious until …the interval.

Farrington’s own composition,  ‘Fiesta’, began the second half. The seven short movements celebrate life. In ‘Conversation’ Farrington figures sharply observed conversations within the music. ‘Stride Dance’ ramps up the excitement. ‘Song’ gives us time to, maybe, smooch a little. ‘Fast Dance’ has a Peter Gunn-ish quality shading towards the sinister. ‘Nocturne’ allows us to sit down outside for a moment in the cool, night breeze. ‘Finale’ drives us back onto the dance floor. The tempo is furious, the volume up to eleven. The neighbours are complaining!

Farrington enjoys arranging seminal pieces of modern music: the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry fields forever’ and ABBA’s ‘Money, money, money’ being two. ‘Strawberry fields’ is Lennon’s haven. A bell tolls, there is nostalgia, a hint of nightmare; things aren’t quite what they seem. ‘Money, money, money’ has the Lizt-ish robustness of melody which Andersson and Ulvaeus were so good at. Farrington’s arrangment riffed around the motif, flirting, departing, returning.

Art Tatum enjoyed jazzing the classical repertoire. He arranged ‘Humoresque’ from Dvořák’s cycle of piano pieces, giving it smart new dancing shoes: here were blue notes and jazz variations. The music was breaking out all over. ‘Humoresque’ ragged! And, to close, here was Tatum’s furious ‘Tiger Rag’: wham, bam and thank you Ma’am!

Farrington shared one final piece with us as an encore: the tiny ‘Exit’ from his own ‘Animal Parade’ suite.

It’s great to see and hear someone keeping the spirit of ragtime and its relations jazz and blues alive – and adding to the canon. No need to hide this music away in an elevator!

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