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Jean-Michel Damase at 75

Trio (1962 - 1st Movement)
Anna Noakes, Flute; Paul Goodey, Oboe; Douglas Finch, Piano

17 Variations for Wind Quintet
Miho Wada, Flute; Alex Birchall, Oboe; Helen Oughtibridge, Clarinet; Jamie Thoma! Karen Chalmers, Bassoon

Sonata for Flute and Harp* (1964 - 1st Movement)
Anna Noakes, Flute; Gillian Tingay, Harp

Trio for two Flutes and Piano
Movements 1, 2 and 3
Lucy Mcintyre and Marielle Way, Flutes; Catherine Millage, Piano

Trio for Flute, Cello and Harp* (1946)
Detta Danford, Flute; Sam Sherwood, Cello; Sefa Steer, Harp

Sonata for Flute and Piano
Anna Noakes, Flute; Jean Michel Damase, Piano.

Quintet for Flute, Harp and String Trio* (1948)
Lianna Jeffrey, Flute; Ruby Aspinall, Harp; Yohei Nakajima and Louise Parker, Violin Diego Carniero, Cello.

Sonate en Concert
Emilia Sigfusdottir, Flute; Jean Michel Damase, Piano

Theme Varie
Sophie Parkhouse, Saxophone; Catherine Millage, Piano

Quartet for Four Flutes (1989 - Movements 2 and 4)
"Attis" Flute Quartet: Hattie Webster, Amanda Moore, Heledd Francis & Detta Danford

Jean-Michel Damase (b. January 1928) is alive and well at 75 and was celebrated at Trinity College of Music with an intensive three day workshop residency arranged by Anna Noakes, culminating in a well attended and truly portrait concert in the magnificent Chapel of the Old Naval College at Greenwich.By what turned out to be good chance, central London congestion charges plus the inconvenience of a recovering broken leg figuring, we were persuaded to favour local music making. (Without other regular reviewers for Musical Pointers hard choices are inevitable, and we forsook the two newest of Maxwell Davies' ten Naxos string quartets at Wigmore Hall; with seven of the commission still to go there will be other opportunities to catch up!)

Many of us who aren't flautists will have known Damase only through his 17 Variations for Wind Quintet, if little else, and may have pigeon-holed him as a minor, conservative French composer of the mid-20 C. It is salutary to take time to explore the range of such a shadowy figure in depth, and he proved to be an absorbing companion for a generous two and a half hours.

Damase turned his back on the modernist developments of Messiaen and Boulez and has continued to explore with great skill the possibilities that remain in a characteristically elegant French musical language,"continuing the post-tonal line of Debussy and Ravel without the modish interest in their deeper-seated implications" (Grove) or, in the composer's own words, "I prefer sincerity to forced innovation." The young players responded to his melodic, tonal, yet harmonically sometimes quite complex language and produced well prepared performances of a range of pieces, nearly all involving the flute.

In some works, there was a tendency to rely over-much upon fluent figurations (Douglas Finch was fully extended in the trio with flute and oboe, bringing to mind chamber music of Mendelssohn and Faure with their too-many-notes for modern taste). Damase's harp writing too was inclined to rely upon typical facile arpeggiation of harp - not for him the discoveries of Berio; it would be fascinating to know if he enjoys listening to 'contemporary music', even though he is set against going down that road.

Where his keyboard composing style came from was revealed when the veteran composer pianist took the stage with Anna Noakes, and later Emilia Sigfusdottir, for two of his sonatas. A pupil of Cortot, with a brilliant early career as virtuoso pianist, Jean-Michel Damase played the enormously demanding piano part of his 1975 Sonata for Flute (which taxed his page turner) with liquid tone and insouciant, undemonstrative ease. I will remember Damase's piano-playing long after memories of the latest young tigers of the piano have faded. Anna Noakes showed everyone else how to float and sustain a long melodic line with ardour and golden tone. Their collaboration was the high spot of the first half and the Trinity recording of the sonata (not commercially available) will remain a treaure in their archives.

The final work of all celebrated the high accomplishment of Anna Noakes' flute department at Trinity with a performance of the comparatively recent 1989 sonata for four equal flutes which showed tonal blend and flexible, though never indulgent, rhythmic shaping comparable with the best string quartets. Named only as the Attis Flute Quartet, and presumably embarking upon a professional career, I shall be intrigued to hear them again and wonder what repertoire exists or, more likely, they will need to inspire composers to create for them? They should certainly make contact with the doyen of contemporary composers for flute, Doina Rotaru**.

One reservation about the evening; the presentation was far below Trinity College's usual standard for their public concerts, with no biographical notes to introduce the composer nor even the dates of the works given.

*Anna Noakes' regular duo colleague Gillian Tingay was at hand for the flute/harp sonata, and their CD (ASV DCA 898) of chamber music with flute & harp is highly recommendable. Tracks from it can be sampled at the composer's 'unofficial' website.

**- - I end this WorldMusicDays report with one of the most enjoyable and memorable events in Luxembourg, a concert by an orchestra of some 30 flutes the previous day. The Orchestre de Flûtes Français directed by Pierre-Alain Biget, had the famous flautist Pierre-Yves Artaud as soloist; he also took his place in the orchestra with his monstrous octobasse flute. It was fascinating to hear how several composers met the challenge of this unusual ensemble. Only Doina Rotaru of Romania, a composer with a completely original voice (who has in her catalogue a dozen works for flute, 'the favourite musical instrument in the dialogue with gods') exploited the darker potential of the lower registers and lower members of the flute family. Her ritualistic Wings of Light ascended from dark to spiritual light.


© Peter Grahame Woolf