City Recital Hall, April 6


The trick, of course, was not to copy, but to reinvent. So arrangers Matt McMahon and Bernard Rofe, the ACO and trumpeter Phil Slater made Solea their own. The work is the pinnacle of a masterpiece of 20th-century music: Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain – the 1960 album for which this concert was named. Composed and arranged by Gil Evans for a 15-piece orchestra of brass, woodwind, percussion and harp, the question was whether it would work when played by a string orchestra, piano and percussion, with no wind instrument other than Slater’s trumpet replacing that of Miles.

Phil Slater. All photos: Nic Walker.

Using a flamenco cadence and the 12-beat rhythm of its name, Solea’s original impact was largely down to Davis’s spearing improvising and Evans’s ingenious textural shifts, given the tightly restrained harmonic movement. Now, with the string orchestra shrinking the textural palette, even more was riding on Slater. Yet what emerged was a live-music highlight of my life. Less overtly flamenco-tinged than Davis’s soloing, Slater’s created towering climactic points over the slow-moving swell of strings, each scarring you afresh: a celebration of sadness, if you will. In fact one rather regretted that this collaboration (also including bassist Brett Hirst and percussionist Jess Ciampa) didn’t attempt the whole album. Maybe another time.

Instead ACO director Richard Tognetti assembled an eclectic program of composers who had an Andalusian sliver or a Catalonian ideal lodged in their hearts or imaginations. The other main vehicle for improvisation was Chick Corea’s Spain, again arranged by McMahon and Rofe, and based on an expansive version Corea played with the London Philharmonic. McMahon brought his silken touch and innate lyricism to bear, and ultimately this less dramatic version better suited the composition’s light spirit than that with the LPO.

An instrumental arrangement of an eight-voice setting of Ave Maria by the program’s lone Spaniard, Tomas Luis de Victoria, split Solea and Spain. After being shredded by Solea, this courtly and elegant solace was an equally surprising and logical interloper.

Works by Debussy, Ravel, Boccherini and Shchedrin (his wild, instrumental fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen) filled the first half, amid which came Tognetti’s arrangement of the Moorish traditional Sephardic song, Yo era nina de casa alta, cramming a vivid glimpse of a different time and place into all of two minutes.