Christmas with North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St. Olave’s, London

It made a welcome change to a conventional Christmas concert to go and hear in the North Sea Radio Orchestra, supported by Wilderthorn, last Friday. The venue—St Olave’s—is a beautiful church right in the heart of the City. All the prerequisites for a festive event were in place: Christmas trees up, mince pies, mulled wine and a raffle, and a full and supportive audience. Wilderthorn, who is the singer Jon Bilbrough, opened the evening with a set of his own songs that not only showed his strong vocal but his music is imbued with influences from his earliest musical experiences touring and performing in Sri-Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and India. Jon was accompanied by the violinist James Underwood who added sensitive colouring to Jon’s guitar playing. The opening song was full of features that characterised much of his material; a soaring vocal line often coloured with ornamentation one might hear in Indian Classical singing,  interesting harmonies, inventive guitar riffs and a keen ear for subtle timbres. “The Lion’s mane” made use of the loop pedal to sustain a pattern that was not unlike the tambura drone found yet again in Indian Classical music with James’ playing always blending beautifully with Jon’s. Wilderthorn’s work focuses on strong lyrics-lines like “swam all day to drown you out” in “The Spell” but all the songs presented were similar in character and mood tempo wise. Most impressive was his vocal ornamentation through all his set.


After interval carol singing – particularly “Gabriel’s Message”  in a rockier feel – North Sea Radio Orchestra opened their performance with “The Angel” sung by Sharron Fortnam accompanied by Craig Fortnum on guitar and vocals was a beautiful setting on Blake’s words. “The Wound” has real imaginative riffs on the piano, with Brian Wright (violin), Nicola Baigent (clarinet), Luke Crookes (bassoon) and Hugh Wilkinson (percussion) joining in. The instrumentation of this group is utterly right – such beautiful colourings and textures possible particularly that of wind and the synth. The synth (played of James Larcombe) opens “Everyday Hath Its Night” and it is the synth that gives the group it’s distinctive sound along with with imaginative riffs that are nothing but catchy. The soaring vocal lines, obsessive repetition of riffs for solos connected NSRO with Wilderthorn well and made the pairing ideal for this event.

North Sea Radio Orchestra - Photo by NSRO

The instrumental number “Berliner Luft” was fantastic – lively, bold and energetic. The texture built up from the opening bassoon and clarinet duet to a percussion/synth/guitar section and subsequently the violin added – the obsessive repetition all the while being nothing but engaging. The sustained synth notes against the repeated-note wind lines was a lovely colour. You can’t help but move to this track. “Morpheus Drone” segued – a beautiful raga-like solo from Brian Wright, and went straight into “The Earth Beneath our Feet” which featured prominent bassoon playing by Luke Crookes. There were musical links between these three items with them sharing melodic ideas; the programming was carefully planned here.


“Phantom” – by Thomas Hardy – had suitably soaring vocals from Sharron, with “When Things Fall Apart” following showing the interesting close harmonies of Sharron and Craig. The sound was superbly managed in a venue like this with nothing ever being too loud or too quiet, all balanced and blended so well. “Morpheus Miracle Maker” (the opening track on their new album “I a Moon”) showed how much Sharron captures the vocal quality of Kate Bush yet is something rather different. The minimalist quality to the instrumental sections makes this something fresh and rather beautiful when Sharron vocalises above. I loved the opening riff of “Heavy Weather” with Craig’s vocals and synth line and again the repetition never feels too much. The two-part counterpoint of the vocal lines and bassoon gives a baroque quality, and there is a sense that this song  much like the others evolves in terms of its textures and structure. Bass clarinet added a warmth and depth to this song.

Craig’s guitar playing is full of inventiveness is his riffs and lines; “Guitar Minature #2” felt like a Renaissance dance with his delicate playing demonstrating his sensitivity and skill. “End of Chimes” and “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” closed the evening well – such effective textures possible with the ensemble. The NSRO arrangement of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”  ended a lovely evening of music. NSRO are worth exploring: distinctive in their use of Hardy, Blake and Tennyson texts coupled with engaging textures and catchy inventive riffs mean you can’t help but listen.

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman