Courtney Pine: Tung Auditorium, Liverpool – A Review


By Ed Barrett

It is quite simply impossible to describe music this sublime in words. If you’re short of time, ditch reading this review, and look for tickets for the remaining tour dates, even if you think you don’t particularly like jazz – no, scratch that – even if you think you don’t particularly like music – and prepare for a Damascene conversion.

For those of you in less of a rush, I’ll do my best . . .

There’s something surprisingly warm and welcoming about Liverpool University’s new Yoko Ono centre, which opened in March, and houses the Tung Auditorium, especially when lit up at night.

The exterior of the building has something of a hint of art deco about it which, along with its musical function, makes it seem like it might be the nearby Philharmonic Hall’s younger sibling.

The choice of main building material may seem to simply be a nod to Liverpool being one one of the original ‘red brick’ Universities; but brick’s density apparently also lends excellent acoustic qualities, shielding the interior from the outside noise of a lively city at night.

This warmth continues inside, in both the design and furnishings, and also in the persons of Marketing Coordinator Ruth Adams and Artistic Director Richard Hartwell, who clearly relish the opportunity to share the magical venue with visitors. 

Entering the Tung Auditorium itself takes this to another level, with everything from the design to the smell of the wood giving the room a goosebump-inducing presence I’ve only previously felt when visiting one of my favourite theatres.

This beauty is far from skin deep; such attention has been paid to the acoustics that from the first few notes from Courtney Pine’s bass clarinet – itself a beautiful object in its own right – you feel like you’re somehow inside the music in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. It is of course his playing that brings both the instrument and the music to life; but the room somehow makes it sound like it’s being played just for you.

And what playing it is.

I’m still struggling to believe the range of sounds I heard produced that evening. At times, with the overtones and and harmonics, it sounded like there must’ve been four clarinets being played at once; at others, Mr Pine somehow turned the instrument into a percussion section, not by suddenly beating it with a previously-hidden pair of drumsticks, but – well, I’m not really sure how. It was like watching a master magician at work: I know there must be a trick to achieving something so apparently impossible, but I’m at a loss to what the trick was.

But this was no mere spectacle; musically-speaking, it was an absolute tour de force, with standards like Motherless Child, Windmills of my Mind and Let My People Go being taken to new levels, with less familiar tunes (to me at least) becoming instant favourites. Even on studio recordings, Pine’s playing sounds live in a way that most recordings simply don’t. In person, this is taken to an even higher plane.

Zoe Rahman on grand piano was a perfect foil, with even the Maestro himself at times simply stepping back to nod and smile in appreciation of her beautiful playing. The understanding in the interplay between the two was nothing short of psychic.

When they joined this perfectly-matched duo, first Miranda Lewis Brown on cello, then Julia Dos Reis on viola and Ellen Blair on violin added extra layers to what was already shaping up to be an exceptional evening’s entertainment.

I’ve never been a particular fan of Amazing Grace; but between them, seemingly without any major re-jigging, the ensemble revealed a depth to the tune I’d never previously suspected was there.

I am not exaggerating when I say this was some of the finest playing I’ve ever heard. Such was my gratitude at being there to witness it, I even went along with Courtney’s request that we stand at the end of Your Majesty (his own wonderful composition, and his musical homage to the Queen) to applaud the Monarch, despite being a committed republican (with a small ‘r’) and socialist.

The title of the tour and accompanying album – ‘Spirituality’ – could not have been better chosen; music can rarely have been so deeply moving. At the same time, Courtney Pine’s humour and humanity shone through. I had previously been unconvinced that it is possible to play a genuinely funny ‘musical joke’; it was nice to be proven so wrong, so often.

But please, don’t take my word for any of this – treat your ears, treat your heart, treat your soul, and catch the tour while you can.

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