Vikki Stone’s Concerto for Comedian and Orchestra had its debut at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival, and Saturday evening saw its London première at Kings Place.
At first, one is tempted to think of the piece as a bit of a gimmick – a new way for an award-winning stand-up comedian to theme an evening – but the piece is much, much cleverer than that, and it melds, in an hour-long uninterrupted performance, Stone’s excellence as both a comedian and a musician.
Unusually, for a concerto, it’s in four (and a bit) movements – an opening dramatic brassy ‘maestoso’, a slow, minimalist ‘andante’ heralded by harp, keyboard-xylophone and strings, a gallop-y ‘scherzo’ and a final movement whose eventual ‘allegro’ (that has something of the folk-tune about it) is preceded by a sad little motif for oboe and harp. The musical material is approachable and generally quite filmic (calling to mind, on occasions, some of the Harry Potter soundtracks or even television-commercial ‘mood music’). The orchestra, though, is there for more than just playing the soundtrack; it is involved intimately with the performance, from producing sound effects (blarting brass to bleep out swearing, for example) to members walking off in a huff, or dressing as clowns; even audience members are co-opted to play fish-slice and mug or baking-tin and ladle. The London Musical Theatre Orchestra under Ben Glassberg have performed the work a few times now, and are adept at managing the timing of its twists and turns (and, in comedy, timing is everything), producing not only refined performances but happily participating in the comedic shenanigans and making solo appearances (Glassberg himself happily joining in the joke about ignoring any instruction that isn’t addressed to ‘maestro’).
Stone is a narrative comedian, in the same tradition as Eddie Izzard, Victoria Wood and Joe Lycett, so her material is eminently suited to a lengthy piece. Indeed, the whole work is a quirky love story that’s an extended riff on a viola-player joke. For those not in the know, viola players are often ‘fillers-in’ in orchestral music, and they and their instruments are accordingly frequently the butt of jokes by classical musicians (“What’s the difference between a viola and a caravan? No-one objects to a viola being dragged behind a car”). There are plenty of these in the piece (and, indeed, some about other instruments: “Cellos are a bit like an Aga: warm, comforting and often found unused in posh people’s houses”), but also a deal of fun-poking at classical audiences (there’s a ‘movement 1a’ for latecomers) and plenty of wry observations on the human condition.
The cleverness of the piece, though, is the way that the comedy echoes symphonic form. Each of the movements begins at a different part of the story, and the spoken material is appropriate to the overall tempo and mood of the movement. Little motifs are dropped into the story and developed, and there are occasional changes in tempo (an excuse for another one-off viola joke, for example); there are sometimes direct interactions between narrative and music, such as a little section of rhythmic Sprechgesang. The opening movement – a set of musings from a mis-matched couple over the malfunctioning of a dishwasher – is a neatly executed exercise in sonata form: exposition; development; recapitulation. The ingenuity of the work, though, becomes apparent in the final movement, where Stone brings all of those dropped, disparate, motifs from across the piece together in what can only be described as an exercise in counterpoint – a final coalescence of all the themes into a satisfyingly happy end to the story.