Review: Hebrides Ensemble’s Dead Elvis

First published in the Guardian on 13 November, 2014

Centrepiece of this America-themed programme was Michael Daugherty’s 1993 gimmick concerto Dead Elvis, in which a bassoonist dresses up in a King suit and gyrates while playing brash notes and fancy licks. “If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis,” Daugherty writes in his notes to the piece. Back when it was premiered the cynical sales trick was probably provocative; now the eight minutes of stock jazz tropes and ballsy post-minimalism seem tired, more show than substance. Granted, no bassoonist could have been more persuasive than the lithe, lush-toned Peter Whelan. Emerging from a puff of smoke in costume, quiff and shades, he made the instrument squeal and swoon – and all this from a noted baroque specialist.

Much of the night fell in that dodgy hinterland where classical musicians try for louche Americana but remain too square to pull it off. There were some early audience walk-outs –Elvis fans feeling duped? – after Milhaud’s lacklustre Suite op 157b. Some superb individual performances lifted the mood, particularly from pianist Huw Watkins who gets to the nub of any musical character with minimal fuss. His brought sweet schmaltz to the Milhaud; swaggering, boozy menace to the suggestive rumblings of Ades’s Life Story. Soprano Claron McFadden was absorbing in Stephen Montague’s Wild Nights, leaning into the piano, stroking the strings and crooning lines of Emily Dickinson. Her account of Bernstein’s beautiful ballad Dream With Me was stilted, though: too safe, too buttoned up.

The night ended with Wynton Marsalis’s A Fiddler’s Tale Suite – a swing-heavy rip-off of Stravinsky’s masterful A Soldier’s Tale. Lacking the original’s invention, grit and wit – especially when given the fairly po-faced reading it was here – the redeeming feature was Ryan Quigley’s brawny trumpet solo.