Robert Mitchell’s Invocation sets sail at Bournemouth Arts By The Sea Festival

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Although Bournemouth Arts By The Sea Festival is bringing many charming open-air events to the historic seaside town over the next fortnight [until October12], the interior space of St. Peter’s Church was the scene of a superb opening night concert. London-based pianist Robert Mitchell has always been a formidable improviser whose composing has the sort of baroque, multi-layered character that lends itself to bigger orchestral settings so the collaboration between his longstanding group Panacea, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and young students from Avonbourne and Harewood colleges made perfect sense. The ambition of the concept was matched by the beauty of the result.

Invocation is a tribute to, in Mitchell’s own words, ‘life-changing teachers’, and the suite in five movements made specific reference to such iconic figures as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr as well as quoting ancient Chinese proverbs and Sumerian riddles, which had the effect of placing the general concept of education, or perhaps the gift of wisdom, within a kind of timeless, dare one say, ageless context. 

In its most inspired moments the performance vividly created a deeply ancestral, almost primeval atmosphere, that resonated with the nature of the subject, as if the act of passing on the most vital of lessons in life could only be done with a knowledge of and respect for history of the most far-reaching kind. The inherent drama of Mitchell’s writing was skillfully rendered by Deborah Jordan’s operatic, gymnastic vocal that negotiated wide intervallic leaps, dissonant thematic lines and stark shifts of harmony with impressive poise. Rather than overload the score with the added power of the 100-strong Chorus, Mitchell spread out their interventions with a fair amount of economy, yet they reinforced the numerous counter-melodic subtexts of the composition and provided a gauzy, string-like texture to Jordan’s many daring flights into the soprano range. The singers had a delicate power.    

Chorus master Gavin Carr, who often opened each piece with a short melodic rendition of one of the proverbs with his mighty baritone, was sufficiently precise in his conducting to harness the vocalists as effectively as possible, yet the changing landscape of the choir did not detract from the rhythmic volcano of the band. Indeed the surgical percussive precision of drummer Laurie Lowe, bassist Tom Mason and Mitchell himself on piano, skipping through lopsided meters as if every bar was a straight 4/4, was as impressive as it has been whenever the group has performed in the past few years. The leader’s distinctive composite of post-M-Base funk, Afro-Cuban son and McCoy Tyner-stamped swing is well and truly patented, and if there was the slightest crack in the otherwise impressive edifice of the performance it was the mixing of Lowe’s drums, which too often veered from flat to harsh.

At the end of the show Carr applied the term genius to Mitchell and it did not seem like a case of over-emoting in the heat of the moment. There was a conceptual richness to Invocation that would be beyond even the most creative of beings and if the immense intricacy of the composing was commendable then so too was the real soulfulness, the humanity, at its core. The piece will be performed again at the London Jazz Festival and could well be a highlight of the ten-day celebration.

– Kevin Le Gendre      

– Photo by Gerry Walden – www.gwpics.com

Robert Mitchell performs Invocation at the EFG London Jazz Festival on 23 November at the Queen Elizabeth Hall
– go to www.southbankcentre.co.uk for more info