LADIES ONLY CAFE STRINGS
In the earliest decades of the twentieth century when recording was in its infancy, before dance music and jazz were commonplace and when cinema was silent and radio was new, but as yet untried as a commercial medium, the recording companies found a most profitable growth area in what we have since broadly labelled ‘salon’, or more specifically ‘Palm Court’. The ubiquitous background music of select nightspots, restaurants and hotel lounges, at such plush venues it was played to entertain the Edwardian equivalent of 21st-century ‘couch potatoes’, but in contrast to ‘elevator music’ and other modern equivalents it was live, not canned. A long-lost night world of accordions and plangent violins, its daytime backup was a boom industry that kept both writers and players busy. Directly mirroring public taste it also provided popular ensembles with regular work in recording studios where output was as prolific as it was diversified.
Salon music’s early key figures were mostly violinists of European origin, moustachioed men with exotic, foreign-sounding names like Herr Iff and De Groot, who apart from the latest lancers and schottisches and cake-walks purveyed staples of the ‘genre music’ repertoire. With Mendelssohn’s Spring Song, Rubinstein’s Melody in F and pieces by Grieg, Raff or Moszkowski to the fore, they specialised in such tuneful trifles as Toselli’s Serenata, Thomé’s Simple aveu, Silésu’s Un peu d’amour and, as bosom companions to the gypsy airs (always sure sellers), tunes inspired by monastery gardens and sleepy lagoons, scores of violin-preponderant, now longneglected miniatures with schmaltzy titles like Quand l’amour meurt or Parfum du passé. By the end of the first World War the waltz had given way to jazzy American imports and within a few years the trend for hotter tempi opened a new avenue for the more adventurous groups and laid the foundations of ‘crossover’. From the late 1920s onwards themes from classical landmarks were ‘jazzed up’ by small dance orchestras and big bands alike and, in a later juxtaposition well graphed on recordings, the last century’s final decades brought a cloaking of jazz in a classical idiom, ‘playing Bach jazz’ like Jacques Loussier or jazz on a Strad à la Menuhin, which despite its short-lived niche-market limitations, took the crossover style through a new phase of its evolution.
The vast genre music back-catalogue is not just a legacy but also a reminder that short, light classics, even ‘low-brow’ compositions elevated, have always been popular and commercially viable. The formula is proven and the advantage of hindsight and a tradition spanning more than a century is that it is now possible for Ladies Only, a seven-piece ‘classical’ chamber ensemble of Swedish Chamber Orchestra players and their arrangers, to plumb the archives for, so to speak, other suitable strings to their bows. They have proven that it is possible to adapt suitable material in other styles, which when skilfully and unpretentiously managed and subtly understated by the playing of the Ladies themselves, will either syncopate or ‘starch up’ to the same high standard.