Keith Emerson - Barbican Hall
10th July 2015 (with Jim Knipe)
I’ve just spent another night at a not-your-usual-kind-of gig. I’ve been signed up to the Barbican Centre’s mailing list for some time and the kinds of concert that interest me put on by the organisation are often on the fringes of ordinary prog, such as the Lindsay Cooper tribute last year and Goblin performing a live soundtrack to Profondo Rosso earlier this year. The Keith Emerson Band would have been straightforward crossover prog but for the this performance they were joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Terje Mikkelsen playing The Three Fates Project, an album of orchestrated works by Emerson, largely but not exclusively originally presented as trio pieces with ELP, and also featuring a couple of tracks by guitarist Marc Bonilla. I was personally rather thrilled by the prospect of the concert, imagining it hinted at the Works tour with orchestra in the late 70s which sadly had to be curtailed because of the negative financial impact. Future events in this format are also under threat following a recent back-room deal between the BBC and the government in which the Corporation was forced to agree to pay for the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s, estimated at £650 million. Taking on this financial burden is likely to require further cuts to services provided by the BBC, such as their orchestras. The Myerscough report Delivering Quality First from 2012 about the future funding of the BBC, talked about job cuts and rationalisation of Performing Groups: the five full-time orchestras and the BBC Singers. The percentage of the funding cut was to be of the order of 10 per cent but it swiftly became apparent that the figure of 10 per cent was not to be shared out equally: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic got away with single-figure cuts whereas the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers had to bear the brunt of the cuts. Of course I think that the TV licence fee should be reviewed and restructured, as should the current governance structure of the corporation after the awful handling of the last round of negotiations with the government, but the BBC remains an important organisation, largely unbiased, offering some incredible universally accessible programmes and facilitates live culture through its Performing Groups, one of which was supporting Keith Emerson. Hands off the BBC!
Emerson’s love of classical music is indisputable and his classical adaptations for a rock group format are legion, with a history dating back to his days with The Nice: the side-long title track of Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968); the commissioned title track from Five Bridges (1970); and ELP’s Works (1978) which included his Piano Concerto no.1, the first true formal classical piece he’d written. However, this concert also formed part of the Barbican’s Moog Concordance series, marking 50 years since Dr Robert Moog unleashed his modular synthesizer on an unsuspecting world; a modular Moog formed the centrepiece of Emerson’s keyboard set-up.
The show began without Emerson but with the orchestra, drummer Ralph Salmins and bassist Travis Davis who inadvertently created a huge crunching noise over the quiet orchestration at the start of Abaddon's Bolero as he plugged in his instrument. The appearance of Marc Bonilla as the number built to a crescendo drew a burst of applause from the audience which was repeated, louder, when Emerson, replete in a sparkly dark suit appeared to play a few bars on the Moog at the end of the piece. At this juncture Emerson explained a little bit about the concept of The Three Fates and cracked some feeble jokes when he really shouldn’t have bothered. He even asked if Rick Wakeman was present in the audience, suggesting that Wakeman should do the jokes. It also appeared that he expected Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess to be in the crowd though it wasn’t clear if Rudess was to supply any humorous material. The music fitted the classical treatment really well and it was during the second piece, The Endless Enigma that I realised how Emerson’s scoring for strings was quite identifiable, harking back to The Five Bridges Suite. Emerson didn’t contribute to Bonilla’s American Matador but the composition didn’t seem at all out of place, showcasing the guitarist’s technique and genuinely providing a Spanish feel. Sitting quite close to the front of the stalls towards the left side of the stage, near to where the band had set up, the full orchestra was distinct but the only part of the band that was consistently audible was the drums. I could hear the cellos and double bass better than I could make out the bass guitar; the volume of the guitar became more acceptable as the concert progressed but the keyboards, with the exception of the grand piano, were for the most part indistinguishable, lost in the swell of the brass, woodwind and strings. It was only when Emerson played solo lines like for the encore Lucky Man that he could be made out clearly.
The weakest songs were After All Of This (which Emerson described as also being And All of That) and a piece from a film that never surfaced called The Mourning Sun, both of which were relatively brief and lacked development. It was interesting to hear the performance of the Alberto Ginastera piece Malambo and the presentation of Fanfare for the Common Man, preceded by a story about asking Copland for permission to use the piece, was a clever comparison of the score as written followed by a version just featuring the electric group like that originally appearing on Works. The highlight was of course Tarkus in its entirety, which didn’t sound out of place as an orchestrated piece.
Emerson took up the conductor’s baton for part of the encore and performed rather well. Lucky Man, dedicated to Greg Lake and featuring the only vocals of the evening, ably provided by Bonilla, brought the event to a close. Despite some difficulty with the sound, at least from where I was sitting, the performance was exceptionally enjoyable, made more so by the likelihood that ELP are never likely to play together again - a must not miss occasion.