Musical magician; Terry Grimley hears a virtuoso on the banjo.
After the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain stole the show at this year's Proms, are we ready for a bit of Bach on the banjo? That will be the opening offering in a remarkable solo recital by virtuoso guitarist Richard Durrant at Birmingham Conservatoire on November 7, which also includes solo versions of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.
As it happens there is a direct connection between Durrant and the Ukelele Orchestra, because they record for his label, LongMan Records. He produced their album The Secret of Life and spotted the previously unrecognised vocal talents of leader George Hinchcliffe, which led to him recording an improbable version of Carole King's Natural Woman.
Basically a classical guitarist who has possibly given more performances of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez than he would care to remember, Durrant's career received a boost nearly 20 years ago when he was invited to stand in as John Williams's replacement with the pioneering "crossover" group Sky.
"In 1991 I was doing a radio chat show with Herbie Flowers," he told me from his studio near Brighton. "The next day he phoned me and said John didn't want to do a tour, and asked if I would do it. I got stacks of work after that."
His career diversified in various directions, including writing music for television (his music accompanied BBC's memorable skating penguins), but recently he has deliberately shifted the emphasis back to playing live.
"I realised how shabby my playing was getting," he explains. "I was still doing 20 or 30 dates a year and they were getting a bit rough, so I made a very conscious decision that I was going to give my guitar playing a kick.
"I've got up to about 70 shows a year now, and I've played all the concertos with the Brighton Philharmonic. My personal favourite is the Villa-Lobos, but if the phone rings they usually want the Concierto de Aranjuez."
However, there is no chance of his ever treating this most familiar of guitar con- certos as a potboiler. For one thing, he points out that it is hugely demanding from a technical point of view, and for another there is that gor - geous slow movement: " You don't often get to sit in front of 60 musicians to play a single-line tune," he says. Durrant studied cello as well as guitar at the Royal College of Music, but has always felt more at home with the latter and its close relatives. Hence Bach on the banjo.
"Bach on the banjo is beautiful," he insists. "The tenor banjo has the same range as the cello, and when I discovered the banjo all my Bach cello suites, which I murdered on the cello, I found I could play on the banjo. The sound is so brittle and clear people think it's a clavichord.
"That starts the show, and I wander about playing it because it's really interesting how the acoustics change the sound."
Durrant calls these wide-ranging solo recitals The Guitar Whisperer. He borrowed the term from a review of one of his performances, which proves that critics do have their uses after all.
The programme also includes Walton's Bagatelles, Stanley Myers' Cavatina from his music for The Deer Hunter (possibly the most famous tune ever written by a composer from Birmingham) and various Spanish classics. The big pieces, though, are the versions of Electric Counterpoint and Tubular Bells. The latter, in a version for ukulele, bodhran and guitar, grew accidentally from what was originally a small excerpt. For the Steve Reich piece he uses a chorus pedal which, he says, gives it an early Pink Floyd flavour. Interestingly these two classics of minimalism come from composers who are usually categorised as belonging respectively to the classical and pop worlds. "I'm not a great one for genres," says Durrant. "The Reich and the Oldfield sit together very comfortably, and it's no coincidence that I play them one after the other. For a lot of people Oldfield almost defined what it was to be English. It's in that very English, Tolkein-like vein."
nRichard Durrant, "The Guitar Whisperer" performs on Friday November 6 at the Huntingdon Hall, Worcester (Box office: 01905 611427) and on Saturday November 7 at the Recital Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Paradise Place, Birmingham (Box office: 0121 303 2323).