Review: Portsmouth Music Festival Gala Concert 

Crookhorn College, Mar 24

Portsmouth Music Festival is a compendium of categories and compartments like a local musical version of Crufts and so its celebration of the winners is as various as those jamboree bags of bygone days in which you might find a whistle, a paper hat, a bubble gum and a gobstopper, all of which once seemed like special treats. It’s not often a programme opens with a piece by Muse which is followed by Hummel.

It’s a strange feeling to find that ‘young people’ now are into rock music that came after I’d affected to grow out of it. My nearest reference point for singer Millie in Attica, a 4-piece band, was Siouxsie Sioux. Their version of Hysteria is impressive and, not being familiar with the original, I’ll take their word for its verisimilitude and retro sympathies. They know exactly what they’re doing.

Elias Simojoki’s Hummel Trumpet Concerto soothed and smoothed in contrast before then merrily and militarily parading Elias’s fine phrases accompanied neatly and confidently by his brother Markus.

An early highlight, though, was surely Mia Drover’s Rachmaninov Prelude that noticeably stilled the audience with its atmosphere and composure. Any reservations I’d had about surrendering a Sunday afternoon to a lucky dip of a show were banished there and then.

The classic recipe for such a show is to make ’em laugh, make ’em cry and then send on the dancing girls and Mabel Alsford’s performance as Veruca Salt from Willie Wonka brought forward what used to be the somewhat demanding personality of Violet Elizabeth Bott remade for a later generation, delivered with consummate self-possession that prompted our genial host, Andrew McVittie, to enquire how much of it was acting. All of it, I’m sure.

Ben Ward’s two Villa-Lobos guitar Preludes were next a captivating contrast full of technique and sensitivity that made a deepening, mystical impression as they progressed before equally compelling was Emme Hensel’s sonata movements by Taktakishvili, the first sorrowful and so soulfully played and the second chirruping like a nest of birds that kept Karen Kingsley as busy as one of those dextrous pianists from the early days of cinema.

In such a gala event that does have ‘something for everybody’, there will be items that aren’t quite the business for some of us. When I was about 13, Jack, ‘a seasoned metalhead’, would have been sensational to me and blown everybody else off stage. He brought in a wide range of electric guitar effects into what was ostensibly a blazing performance of some Metallica. I’m looking forward to celebrating the 80th birthday of Miss Diana Ross on Tuesday, though, and the flying-V guitar looked like the most olde worlde exhibit of the afternoon. The audience loved him, though, and that matters more.

Shifting as erratically as ever through genres, Hazel Humphries flirted with any idea of Crookhorn Sunday afternoon decency in her performance of The W.I. Calendar that thankfully went no further than it did and, in the hope that all my retro references don’t become tiresome to anybody born since about 1980, she’d have been ideal for an old TV show called The Good Old Days.

Karen’s versatility in the role of accompanist went yet further in switching from that to violinist Katie Ho’s Smetana with its change of tempi and stylistic nuance before Katie was joined by sister, Priscilla, with her magical harp and they sparkled together through a Romance by John Thomas. 

And so, bring on the dancing girls, indeed. Lily Pearce was a lyric poem incarnate with her sequence of balletic moves and, as was remarked afterwards, was, like all the performers, brilliantly in ‘performance mode’ as soon as she was on stage. Katie Bone’s vocal on Wherever He Ain’t from Mack and Mabel was full of personality and New Juysey attitude and the Fortuned Cookies were a ‘kooky’ 4-piece a cappella doing what a barbershop quartet would have done if there had been barber shops for ladies. There was once a group called Fascinating Aida but that’s the closest I can get.

But it wasn’t all over because Students from the Marie Clarke School of Dance provided extracts from Beetlejuice full of slick choreography and vibrant song’n’dance by way of a literally showstopping finale. It was ages ago that it was suggested that the age, and even idea, of Variety was over. Well it isn’t on this evidence. 

In a way it’s easier on the performers who each contribute their part but the audience have it coming from all directions. That was a tremendous show. Exhausting, really. Best of luck to anybody who has to write about it.

David Green

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