Earlier this month, an evening at St John at Hackney induced a trifecta of novel experiences. Our first time having a pint in a church … at a gig! Our first time listening to members of Palestine’s Sabreen Group. And, our first time hearing Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk’s Continuous Piano Music.
What a pleasure all three proved to be. Filtering in as James Blackshaw began proceedings on his acoustic guitar, St John’s atmosphere and acoustics were immediately apparent. Though the space is large, the sound was fantastic without needing much in terms of amplification (something not lost on Melynk when he later took to the stage). Interestingly, the 18th century architect of St John’s, James Spiller, was convinced when he designed the church that the acoustics would only be good when the church was full, so the packed nave might’ve played their part in it sounding so good.
The design of St John’s also contributed sensory gratification. A large golden relief was the backdrop for Melnyk’s imposing Grand Piano, the focal point of the chancel. Impressive and imposing, the piano did unfortunately mean Blackshaw’s performance didn’t have a heightened stage and therefore couldn’t be seen by a large proportion of the audience. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed his finger-picking style, with the performance seamlessly dipping in an out of instrumentals and singer songwriter material.
After moving to a better vantage point by standing, next to take to the stage was Kamilya Jubran and Sarah Murcia’s Arabic string quintet. Murcia’s expertise on the double bass made an instantaneous impression, as did Jubran’s haunting vocals. Laced over the top of ominous string arrangements, they had a transformative effect and I soon found myself enraptured by unchartered aural territories of Palestinian music. At times it was challenging, and whilst most relished this some disengaged with the unfamiliarity of the recitals style.
Following a second interval, Lubomyr then took his place by the piano. His warm-hearted demeanour was clear from the off, paying compliments to both the audience and the space. Later, he preached the importance of love in the world for all, with emphasis on helping those in dire need. His own experience of living hand to mouth in Paris as a struggling musicians during younger years added an authenticity to the message which wasn’t lost on the audience. During the virtuosic performance, guests made appearances with varying degrees of success. A female vocalist appeared twice and was a stunning addition to the whirlwind of keys, mesmerizing with her ability to stay in tandem with the complex meters of the pieces. A piece between Melmyk and guitar player was less harmonious – leaving lingering doubt that the collaboration added much to the composition’s virtue.
Nevertheless, this was a small blemish on a masterclass. A personal highlight was ‘Butterflies’, where the Ukrainian played to a pre-recorded accompaniment. Starting as softly as the beating of one set of wings, it progressed till you felt the beat of swarm of butterflies. As the rapidity of tinkering increased, it became near impossible to discern what Melnyk was playing against what was pre–recorded, and the prodigiousness of talent on display was reinforced. If you get the chance to see Lubomyr, take it. This man might be the fastest pianists of our time. He’s certainly one of the most enchanting and benevolent.