Bernard Gregor-Smith’s 65th Birthday: A Musical Conversation

Bernard Gregor-Smith celebrated his 65th birthday Friday night by performing at Wigmore Hall with some of his colleagues and friends.

The cello he cradled between his knees was not new.  Like Gregor-Smith it was a seasoned instrument that had been around for quite a while.

The sound that came from the cello was rich, experienced and full of life.  So the fact that he was celebrating his 65th birthday could have been easily overlooked.

Gregor-Smith seemed as vital and vigorous a cellist as he did years ago, as part of the Lindsay String Quartet.

The Players

Gregor-Smith performed with an interesting array of instrumentalists.

During the first part of the evening, he was joined by pianist Yolande Wrigley and Giles Francis, who recited a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca to set the scene.

While Gregor-Smith took a brief respite, he left the cello playing to his son Ben Gregor-Smith, a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music, whose playing was fluid and effortless.

When the birthday boy returned to the stage, he was joined by group members of one of the several projects he is a part of, the Dante Quartet.

The Dante Quartet, founded in 1995, is made up of violinists Krysia Osostowicz and Giles Francis, viola player Judith Busbridge, and of course cello player Gregor-Smith, who joined the group in 2005.

Cries from the stringed instruments seemed to chase each other like playful children.   In turn, each of the players brought a tremendous level of professionalism.

It was an incredible act of coordination that can only come from many hours of relentless practice from skilled performers.  The joyful noise was, at times, serious but only long enough to show the audience what great players can do when they work together.

Eclectica

Eclectica played next, another group of which the accomplished cellist is a part.

Eclectica is made up of instrumentalists, who are often connected with diverse and creative projects.

By replacing the violin and viola in a string quartet with two guitars, Eclectica has created a sound in which its unique qualities are only enhanced by the sometimes eccentric music they choose to play.

Pete Oxley wrote the first piece they played for the celebration, ‘Flight of Fancy’.

The conversation between these four adept communicators put lovers of jazz in mind of musicians like Christian McBride and Pat Matheny, who are known for this type of musical dance.

Eclectica was an interesting break from the more traditional performances of the evening, which included classics such as Debussy’s Sonata in D Minor and Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major.

Those performances were rich and arousing, but Eclectica bought a more youthful vigor to the show, which proved that Gregor-Smith is still a vital musician.

In each performance he melded with his other players, so that they performed like one organism.

Yet, a conversation between musicians was unquestionably taking place.

In ‘Yemin’, written by guitarist Nicolas Meier, Gregor-Smith’s playing was reactionary and the rough whine of his cello intoxicating.

The audience seemed hypnotised as he stroked the underbelly of his instrument.  This particular conversation grew tendrils and wrapped itself around the seated audience.

Haunting and refreshing it showed the true talents of Meier, who played with such expert skill that his nimble fingers seemed a mere blur.

Pete Oxley embodied the name of his group, showing up on stage in red trousers, a blue printed shirt and a yellow scarf.

But like violinist Lizzie Ball, his talent knew no bounds.  Ball’s duet with Gregor-Smith was romantic, sweet and playful.  But where she really shined was in her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’.

Surprising the audience by playing the violin and then singing the song, her ability to emotionally connect with the crowd came through as her voice embodied both sadness and wisdom.

Yet, Ball’s playing is often so dynamic that one wouldn’t be surprised to see her violin burst into flames.  It would be interesting to see her in a duet with the likes of violinist Joshua Bell.  Together, they would no doubt commit a serious act of arson.

Mendelssohn

Reverting back to classical, Gregor-Smith and his players took on Mendelsson’s ‘String Octet in E Flat Major’ as the show’s finale.

The Dante Quartet, Lizzie Ball, Ronald Birks, Robin Ireland and Gregor-Smith’s son Ben, played the piece that Mendelssohn wrote at age 16.

And perhaps this sort of youthful genius was a perfect end to the birthday celebration.

The last talk of the evening communicated to the audiences that at age 65, Gregor-Smith could not be put into a conventional box.

He remains current, urgent, energetic and as Kyrsia Osostowicz put it, “forever young”.

If musicians as talented as Gregor-Smith and his friends are going to use their instruments to communicate, then we can only hope that they remain forever chatty.

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