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Friday, 9 August 2013

Fancy tickled : A rough cut of my delayed review of Kathryn Tickell and The Side

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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9 August

A report from the finale of this year’s Cambridge Summer Music Festival, a gig held at Childerley Hall, near Dry Drayton (Cambridgeshire), on 4 August 2013

Any event that begins with Bartók played at a suitable level over the PA system, followed by what I take for a legato performance of a rag (maybe Joplin, maybe Mayerl), promises well. This festival, which embraces not only the worlds of Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell and The Side, but also those of jazz, early music, modern composition, chamber recital, choral concerts, and the classical concerto repertoire, to name but a few, is where one would expect what is conventionally called eclecticism or variety – breadth, perhaps.

The breadth, indeed, that Kathryn Tickell herself represents, not just as an instrumentalist on Northumbrian pipes and fiddle, but also as composer, raconteuse, solo performer, arranger, teacher, vocalist, and band-leader, to name but a few of her roles or skills.

All images by kind courtesy of Reed Ingram Weir Photography

I was not wrong in writing the above : a very appreciative audience of some 500 listened to music of, indeed, breadth, and which was played with great feeling, in the beautiful venue of The Long Barn at Childerley Hall, one of the hidden secrets in the close locality of Cambridge.
Along with trio The Side (about whom more in a minute), Tickell gave a full evening’s worth of music, dancing and, above all, expressiveness – of her love of Northumbria and its people, landscape and fauna, of music, words, and other musicians, including – on stage with her – Amy Thatcher (accordionist, clog-dancer, and vocalist), Louisa Tuck (cellist), and Ruth Wall (lever-harpist).

The two-set gig ranged from a hornpipe (pipes and clogs) to Tickell’s wonderful (in its full sense) and instructive introductions, even to a Beethoven piano sonata* transposed and altered for brass quintet and then refigured further in the dance form of a strathspey, such that she hoped – in the nicest way – that there might be no trace left of the original at which she had hinted ! (Apparently, the score is saved on her PC as Beetstrath…)

Hardly surprising, though maybe he did not often go that far, that she named Percy Grainger as a leading favourite of hers, and that, with Thatcher, she had been involved in a 2009 Prom dedicated to his music – we had a taste of that night and of the collaboration as we were given first straight Grainger, and then a piece that had been reconstructed from one of his arrangements back to an idiom more akin to that of ‘Molly on the Shore’, the starting-tune.


If Clive, one of the very genial owners of Childerley, had not spoken to me after the gig and when I was about to pursue getting the bulk of this review laid down, I would have more detail of which of the four played in what, when and what it was, but that may be lost to the mists of time… What I can say, from this visit and previous ones with the Summer Festival, is that the property is a delightful one for a picnic in the weaving – confusing, even – laid and other grounds. (There is a map, but some of us like to explore – even at the risk of getting lost.)

Thus I have seen it before, prior to the unusual experience of being in The Long Barn for jazz (big band, and also Jacqui Dankworth with smaller forces), which is very long (almost as if it had been not a barn, but a locomotive-shed), and very nicely appointed. One may need a compass and a good sense of direction to find Childerley Hall (that phrase about beaten tracks directly applies), and to go about the grounds, but it is all worth the trouble !

Back to work

As I checked after close of play, I knew that had seen Wall play before : indeed, she had had two other harps with her (at Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge), and had played a fascinating programme (which included some pieces composed or arranged by Graham Fitkin, her husband). She told me (because I asked) that around 10% (maybe sometimes 20%) of what she had been playing was improvised (during the performance, I could see that she was moving sheets around between numbers at the base of her harp, and, without studying them, they seemed to set out the chordal structure.)

Tickell told us that she had worked with Thatcher on projects such as the Prom, plus the pair has a history of profile public music, such as a composition with delightful saxophonist Andy Sheppard for the millennium, Music for A New Crossing. Before we heard it, we were advised that this bridge is in Gateshead – and does not wobble !

All images by kind courtesy of Reed Ingram Weir Photography

Other than that she started leading the cello section of Royal Northern Sinfonia six years ago, the programme said relatively little about what Tuck has played (or where) as an orchestral or chamber soloist (but there is more here). No matter, since her playing said it all – crisply executed pizzicati, lovely resonant bass-notes, and a wholly sonorous accord in the ensemble.

Those comments, as to quality (if not to the detail), apply to all of the group : the tone of Wall’s harp had a real sparkle to it in the bright, upper range, as well as adding to the lower textures of the whole. From time to time, when there were radiant lead-notes for the harp in the harmony, I was put in mind of the musical discourse and style of The Poozies (thinking, especially, of their Infinite Blue album).

Maybe not when Wall really expected it, she was invited to take a solo, and, as with everything that we heard this night, it was met with immense enthusiasm. (In fact, when first welcomed to the stage, Tickell joked, with her typical well-judged timing, and with warm-hearted understatement, You haven’t heard us yet….)

Thatcher, one conceived, maybe could have had a chance to dazzle us more on accordion, but, of course, this was always billed as being headlined by Tickell, and, just as a matter of programming, it would actually have felt contrived to give all four a solo spot.

In fact, Thatcher almost had one (twice) on accompanied clogs, and the virtuosity that otherwise could not come so much to the fore alongside the pipes, because the reedy, shining upper part of the range would not fit so well (e.g. in the set of tunes with ‘The Wedding’), she exploited more when Tickell played violin, which she did in roughly equal measure, and with the same feeling and assurance.

Having cello and harp with their wonderful range (not least that warm, singing upper register of the former, for which so many have written with matchless beauty), as well as contributions from accordion and the drone part of the pipes, meant that there was a very full texture available, which some would call richness of sound, and this is where my point of comparison is with that of The Poozies. To my ears, everyone was also pitch perfect, and Tickell and Thatcher maintained a good tuning between numbers.

I have no doubt that many, as I was, were drawn by Tickell’s name and recordings, but, with a first outing together on stage such as this, it is important to stress what a good match for each other The Side and she are. When Tickell began the second set with two tunes, she played them with great expressiveness, with an almost keening quality in the second, drawing out the notes as if our heart-strings, and playing the music so sensuously that it felt akin to arousal.

Her skill, of course, is immense, and that is because the music, where it comes from and what it means to her are so deeply experienced, as she communicated to beautifully in her introductions, but in particular to that of ‘Yearing’ (? a title, taken from a place, that I cannot confirm), with the depiction of the morning air and the sound of the curlew.

This collaboration, with the gifted members of the trio and ranging from Thatcher’s or Tickell’s compositions to ‘Lads of Alnwick’, does not merely deserve to do well, it will do well – staid Cambridgeshire tapping its feet, whooping, and dancing in the aisles testifies to that !

Quite a number of months on, Ruth Wall had agreed to do an interview with #UCFF, where she tells us how it was for her, as a performer, being at Childerley for the first time in public in this line-up, and what she liked about this and other venues on the tour


* The slow movement of an unspecified one. No one had the courage to guess which, although they guessed other challenges.

** As Tickell explained, they are pitch variable to accord with the key in which the chanter is being played.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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