Bedroom Community at the Royal Festival Hall

Organist James McVinnie and Bedroom Community take on the Royal Festival Hall organ for a night.

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James McVinnie Picture (c) Magnús Andersen

This thoroughly absorbing and often invigorating showcase for Icelandic record label Bedroom Community centred around the Royal Festival Hall organ. Yet at the same time it gave the audience an introduction to the diverse talents on the label, perhaps best described as a Nordic counterpart to ECM.

However that description shouldn’t typecast the label, as the evening began with a singer-songwriter. I have to say the tremulous voice of Puzzle Muteson was not to my taste, especially when covering New Order’s True Faith, but it is undoubtedly individual and charmed many of those present. His performed his own material with his own intricately picked guitar and sensitive accompaniment from James McVinnie on the piano. Meanwhile another vocalist, the new Bedroom Community signing Jodie Landau, gave us a hint of things to come with a rich, sonorous vocal that made Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Do but kill me something of a showstopper, uplifting in spite of its title.

McVinnie himself was the curator of the evening, and although it was nearly half an hour before we heard the organ itself, in his hands we got a sense of just how diverse the great Festival Hall instrument can be. We enjoyed the delicate but pointed approach of Nico Muhly in Rev’d Mustard his installation prelude and Beaming music, the notes positioned like stalactites in a cave, but it was the contrasting sonorities of Philip Glass’s Mad Rush that proved the big talking point of the first half. This was vintage Glass; soft, mellow asides on one registration cutting dramatically to imposing, craggy features where the organ resounded heroically. McVinnie’s performance was superb.

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James McVinnie and friends at the Bedroom Community night, Royal Festival Hall, Thursday September 24. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Equally thrilling was Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue, the registrations again imaginatively thought out so that we got a strong sense of the composer’s genius, threading the variations on the steady bass line through the eye of a needle before the great fugue stacked up in front of us.

The new music here was most impressive, and for that we also had viola player Nadia Sirota to thank. A vivid Étude 3 by Muhly set her against the organ, while Bryce Dessner’s solo piece Delphica 3 used the instrument in a knowledgeable but passionate way, building from the profile of a study to a heart on sleeve utterance. We also heard the world premiere of Median Organs by Dessner, written for McVinnie and again notable for intricacy and strength of feeling. Dessner’s compositional career dovetails with his work as part of The National to increasingly powerful effect.

The addition of stringed instruments gave the show variety and extra depth. Double bassist Borgar Magnason lent eerie lines to the Ben Frost film soundtrack There are no others, there is only us, where hordes of starlings assembled in black and white on the projection, to music that matched their movements. It was a moving portrait of one of nature’s mystifying yet wholly affirmative wonders.

In the second half viola da gamba player Liam Byrne explored the limits of his instrument, joining McVinnie and composer Sigurðsson in a response to the Bach Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir. Although the bass notes on the electronics resounded too heavily this was a brilliant piece of musicianship from all three players, sensitively expanding on Bach’s music to illustrate its contemporary dimensions, while also clearly listening to each other as the improvisation took hold. It was unexpectedly moving and, in its free approach and generous musicality, symptomatic of the evening as a whole.

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