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Susan Elkin reviews: The People’s String Foundation

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Anyone who reads my music reviews regularly will spot that this concert is not the sort of thing I usually cover. Actually, it’s back to my roots: my father was a ceilidh band leader and from my early teens I often sat in on fiddle or guitar when they were short for a dance, festival or other event. I therefore feel pretty comfortable with anything folky and sometimes it even overlaps with the early, baroque, classical and Romantic music I usually favour.

And this concert – where we sat under an awning, and well wrapped up in Hever Castle’s idyllic grounds as part of its festival – did not disappoint. I was pleasantly surprised by the eclecticism and the creativity of a whole evening of original compositions.

Ben Sutcliffe (violin, vocals and keyboard) and Zaid Al Rikabi (guitar and vocals), who are based in Cornwall, have been composing songs together since 2008. Gradually they began to work with other players and from that has emerged the 32 piece orchestra which they call The People’s String Foundation – although some woodwind and brass players are included. As a group they have worked on various projects and collaborations and Sutcliffe and Al Rikabi are regular composers for the Minnack Theatre.

This concert – their first live gig for nearly a year, they told the audience – gave us Sutcliffe and Al Rikabi playing acoustically in the first half. Then, after the interval, we got an audio/video projection of the whole orchestra recorded in Truro last year with the two men silhouetted in front of it and playing as part of the ensemble.

The music is very repetitive but compelling and often beautiful. The opening number, for example, consists of a fairly simple 16 bar melody which repeats to become, effectively, a folk-style take on theme and variations with a pretty exciting foot-tapping accelerando and crescendo passage. The whole concert is characterised by minor keys, close harmony and syncopation. Romanian Gypsy and Klezmer influences are very clear. I especially liked the col legno effect with very percussive guitar in, for example a number called “Solidarity” Both men are virtuoso players and several times stunned me with their techniques – Sutcliffe’s upward glissandi are really something.

My problem with the first half was the lighting. There wasn’t any. The temporary theatre in the Hever Castle grounds is effectively an awning for the audience and a forward-pointing canopy over the stage so it’s in shadow. It is equipped with stage lights and there’s a lighting box at the back of the auditorium but none of it was in use for this show. Whether that was for artistic or budgetary reasons it was a mistake because I could hardly see the two men on stage.

The second half was visually better because dusk had arrived and the main focus was the lit screen behind the two men. The production, called Res Publica, was a collaboration with Kneehigh, a Cornish theatre company and we saw a wooden marionette climb out of an old wooden violin case in a wood and then explore – as we listened to and watched the orchestra which makes rather a good sound. I was interested to see that, although Sutcliffe and Al Rikabi play entirely from memory with a great deal of visual signalling, orchestra members use conventional sheet music.

It was certainly a concert with a difference and an enjoyable two hours in a very pleasant venue.

This review was first published by Lark Reviews.

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Author information
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016