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O DUO - Owen Gunnell & Olly Cox (percussion)
Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund award-winners
Purcell Room, London 13 December 2004

Maurice Ravel Alborada del gracioso arr. for orchestra
J S Bach Prelude & Corrente (Partita No 1)
Felix Mendelssohn Fugue in F minor No.4
Jacob Ter Beldhuis Goldrush
Stephen McNeff Barristas

O Duo Bongo Fury
Poulenc Sonata for piano duet (1 & 3)
Dizzy Gillespie Night in Tunisia
Bartok Suite for Piano (3)
Minoru Miki Marimba Spiritual
Chopin Fantasie Impromptu & Minute Waltz

It was a privilege to attend this duo's London recital; two fine multi-skilled musicians who happen to play percussion intruments, but should not be relegated to a second division on that account. They have had notable success in 22 appearances on the Edinburgh fringe, and the news had spread, but no website or photos yet. The Purcell Room was full, with a vociferously receptive audience; Musical Pointers was there!

A recital is more than a series of items. O DUO has a large repertoire, all played by memory. This programme (quite different from that published in advance) had been carefully honed and tested. There is a lot of platform rearrangement in a percussion recital; these two young men bridged the gaps effortlessly with informal (?) chat, the nuggets of information relevant and their throw-away jokes truly funny. They achieved easy rapport with the audience, making for a warm, convivial atmosphere, and their rapport with each other when playing was uncanny. The marimbas predominate and they were proudly baptising new instruments just bought in America.

The arrangements of Bach, Mendelssohn and Chopin were revelatory. Whereas Bach on modern grand piano, however beautiful, requires compromise and (to me) always sounds anachronistic, the concert marimba (which has only existed for some seventy years) makes the music sound as if it was written for them - no compromises required. The only regret was that because of exigencies of programme timing we heard only extracts of the piano music (they are a little chary of slow movements because of limited sustain capability of their instruments).

Their virtuosity makes light of any demands for rapidity of hands and feet; more important is the subtle grading of tone quality, dynamics and rhythmic nuances which cedes nothing to master pianists in their chosen pieces. They apologised for needing to plunder the piano repertoire but should stop doing so. Mendelssohn's fugues may belong to that repertoire, but who knows them? This one was a real delight, combining fugal treatment with the gossamer lightness of the Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo. Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu was magical, the middle section entrusted to vibraphone.

The duo had played at Covent Garden in Stephen McNeff's marvellous opera Clockwork (do click on my review of it!); that encounter led to his composing Barristas for them, a substantial piece in which they dressed as coffee-shop attendants and added coffee bean shakers to their armamentarium. McNeff is a significant composer who will shortly have greater general impact as Composer in Residence to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

For Gillespie they commandeered from the audience three assistant percussionists, who acquitted themselves perfectly (not always so in Edinburgh, where one refused to stop at the end and continued with an unprogrammed solo!). Miki's Marimba Spiritual was so demanding that they wisely limited the promised encores (the audience would never have been satiated) to a brief minute-&-a-bit; the favourite Chopin waltz transformed into a balletic tour de force.

There is a CD on the way, but this concert was for the eyes and the ears, so total a communication of musical sensibilities and physical presence that a simple, straightforward DVD of O DUO, just as they are, must be under consideration to follow? Hopefully, it will have space to explore some of the classical slow movements alongside creating new synchronised speed records. Meanwhile, O DUO's next recital will be on Orkney; don't miss it!

© Peter Grahame Woolf