Jess Gillam Ensemble. NTU Hall, Nottingham. May 10 2023. 5*****. William Ruff


Jess Gillam Ensemble

NTU Hall

May 10 2023


Review: William Ruff


A programme bursting with virtuosity and musical personality from Jess Gillam and friends

This was a concert where the audience was cheering even before they had heard a note of music.  So it’s hardly surprising that they were on their feet and cheering even more enthusiastically at the end.  Jess Gillam is one of those very rare classical artists whom people feel they know, even though few will have met her.  Not only does she have a lot of media exposure (as, for instance, the youngest person ever to have her own show on BBC Radio 3) but she has one of those warm, larger-than-life personalities that break through the TV screen or bridge the gap between stage and audience in live performances.

She’s currently on tour with her Ensemble, seven seriously talented musicians who can turn their hand seemingly to anything.  Their Nottingham programme ranged widely:  baroque music, contemporary classical pieces, film score and jazz numbers.  And it all flowed together seamlessly, one style melding into another. 

The arrangement of a movement from one of C.P.E. Bach’s flute concertos was a fairly jaw-dropping experience.  The addition of piano and vibraphone to the string accompaniment certainly gave the texture plenty of bite.  The saxophone isn’t as naturally light on its feet as the flute so Jess Gillam’s virtuosity was even more remarkable.  She said that she first heard the piece played by Emanuel Pahud, possibly the world’s greatest living flautist, and that she had decided then and there that she wanted to capture the music’s wild eccentricities on her instrument too.  And she does, making the music sound as if it were written for soprano sax.

There were so many highlights in this 60-minute programme: the haunting music written by Ryuichi Sakamoto for the film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence; a lovely arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the sax and ensemble giving the moonlight a more mellow, more shimmering light than usual.  And there was Will Gregory’s piece Orbit and its exciting perpetuum mobile rhythms, suggesting the constant cycles of the planets.

One of the concert’s more substantial pieces was written for Jess by John Harle, the king of virtuoso saxophonists.  It’s called Briggflatts, a work much inspired by Cumbrian folk songs and dances.  It powerfully evokes landscape and atmosphere, packing a weighty punch in the final section entitled Rant!  It stretches the talents of the whole Ensemble whilst vividly showcasing Jess’s extraordinary range and technical mastery.  Her top notes shone, her bottom notes growled and the local colour was unmistakable, with more than a hint of Northumbrian pipes in the mix.

Irresistible rhythms, uncannily precise ensemble, breath-taking virtuosity and so much sheer joy: there were qualities injected into the music-making throughout the concert by Jess and her talented team. 

Jess Gillam, saxophone

Ciaran McCabe, violin

Michael Jones, violin

Eoin Schmidt-Martin, viola

Gabriella Swallow, cello

Sam Becker, bass

Elsa Bradley, percussion

Leif Kaner-Lidström, piano

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