The Freddie Mercury Project
Ffwrnes, Llanelli, 10 June 2016
QUEEN Concertante: arrangements and an original composition, Impromptu Concertant, by:
Vlad Maistorovici – composer, director, violin
with Harry Cameron-Penny – clarinet / Robin Green – piano
When Freddie Mercury died so tragically of AIDS-related illness in November 1991, violinist and composer Vlad Maistorovici was just six years old and had yet to encounter the rockstar or his music. However, in the days and weeks that followed, Maistorovici was entranced by the Queen records he heard played by older friends. It was the start of a lifelong passion for Mercury and the band; a passion, it turns out, that’s shared by the young professionals of Sinfonia Cymru, who instigated a collaboration with Maistorovici which also featured clarinettist, Harry Cameron-Penny and pianist, Robin Green. The result was the tender and respectful, yet brilliantly flamboyant Freddie Mercury Project; a concert of arrangements of Queen songs and an original composition, Impromptu Concertant, which was toured to Brecon, Llanelli, Newport and Cardiff.
There are tribute acts and there are acts of tribute. Of course Queen and Freddie Mercury have inspired plenty of the former, and it seems reasonable to assume that Sinfonia Cymru’s Project would be more of the same with classical bells on. However, the ensemble is far from your average covers band – or, indeed, chamber orchestra. Theirs was an act of genuine musical adventure in tribute to the great man’s creative spirit – and that of Brian May and the other band members who together made Queen the unique blend of glam cabaret, pop-opera and soft-heavy rock which grabbed the imagination of so many in the ‘70s and ‘80s across the pop-classical divide.
These days, that divide is thankfully old hat. And the sheer energy with which each of the players on Llanelli’s Ffwrnes stage threw themselves into their material was testament to the growing irrelevance of fashion or genre to today’s musicians. After all, good music is good music wherever it hails from – and these were classic songs, superbly arranged by Maistorovici for players that simply got it; full of wit, pathos and dramatic nuance as befit the subtlety and showmanship of Mercury himself.
I confess, much as I’ve always admired Queen, I’ve never myself been a fan. While the almost shocking greatness of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and more oozed from radios everywhere in my childhood, it was the punk rock which exploded onto the streets around the same time which spoke to the urchin I then was. Besides, my deeply uncool maths teacher turned out to adore Queen, and I’ve never quite shaken off the association.
But Sinfonia Cymru had me hooked from the word go, as Maistorovici et al bounded onto the stage and plunged into their ‘Intro (on Flash’s theme)’; not at all like pseudo rockstars, but simply a bunch of excellent musicians out to share something really fun and worthwhile. Actually I found myself giggling happily through much of the concert: at the delightful, unexpected touches of cafe orchestra in ‘Killer Queen’; the bluesy light and shade of ‘Bicycle Race’, with its gypsy violin inflexions and bicycle bells; the cheeky oom-pah-pah of ‘Millionaire Waltz’ and a host of other subtle stylistic swerves. There was even a whiff of English Romanticism about ‘Love of My Life’, whilst ‘Play the Game’ strayed just enough into authentic rock territory to get the blood pounding with its scrunchy, angular chords and heavy back-beat. ‘Flash’ itself was a flurry of pounding tom-toms – turned suddenly and surprisingly into experimental jazz, complete with an improvising trio of violin, clarinet and piano.
Throughout the evening, Maistorovici, Cameron-Penny and Green took it in turn to dazzle with the kind of virtuosity no Mercury tribute could be without; never over-indulgent, and always acknowledging the musicians in the band behind them, who huffed, plucked, bowed, whacked and barked with equal relish. Maistorovici’s Impromptu Concertant slid almost imperceptibly between the arrangements, combining with skill elements of concerto with free improv in a soundworld that was almost Debussyan in places, without once stepping into (ghastly) ‘crossover’ territory.
As bandleader, Maistorovici was not so much Mercur-ial (if you pardon the pun), as cutting a kind of Stephane-Grappelli-meets-Brian-May figure. Thankfully, he let the music do the talking, and eschewed trying to chat up the audience between ‘songs’ (I confess – again – that, since these were instrumental arrangements, I’d been especially dreading a ‘helloooo Lllanelli, are you having a good time?!’ moment, which thankfully never transpired). Indeed, the evening turned out to be impeccably classy, with just the right amount of camp tongue-in-cheek – replete with head-banging flautists in the raucous section of a truly rhapsodic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
The power ballad of ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ was rendered extra-poignant by the sheer youth of the Sinfonia Cymru players and soloists, saluting a figure whose performing genius they could only have seen via what, by today’s slick digital standards, is undeniably footage from yesteryear. By the time we got to the final ‘We are the Champions’, the entire audience was on its feet, swaying and singing along with arms – if not lighters – held aloft. Of course we then got to stamp-clap along too, to the only possible encore, ‘We will Rock You’ – complete with an overdriven fiddle solo from Maistorovici-May.
Well, Sinfonia Cymru, you did rock us. And thoroughly entertain us. This was a great evening in the company of fine musicians doing what they love the most. Freddie Mercury would surely have been totally beguiled – and deeply touched.
Images courtesy of Sinfonia Cymru