Friday, 4 May 2007

Plug V

A Friday lunchtime concert by the Hebrides Ensemble is one of the occasions where the trappings of the concert hall make complete sense; the black clothes, applauding the players on, the tuning up, the big acoustic, the softwoods, the lighting. I've been to the equivalent concert of new music each year for several years now, and have always been struck by the commitment and intensity with which this group play student works. I haven't had the chance to write for them, and frankly it's a daunting prospect; they tackle everything so seriously that one wouldn't want to take any shortcuts.

For Claire McKenzie's Non-believer, the ensemble's violist Catherine Marwood was joined by Hannah Phillips on harp. A very good piece, simple and well structured, with just enough well-placed ugliness to balance the beauty.

Moving down an octave, we had Paddy Johnson's The Great Romantic Copout for solo cello, which won the composition prize this year. William Conway played it extremely well, after having last week expressed some doubts as to whether the piece was playable at all! Hard, then, but well structured, moving from dark muttering obsession to instrumental frenzy to calm reflection and back again.

Graham Fitkin is our visiting composer this year, and the Hebrides played his piece LENS, with William Conway joined by David Alberman on violin and Simon Smith on piano. We were warned in the programme note that this piece would be 'slow, largely soft and sustained'. It was also very long, and felt even longer; one of those pieces where you're watching the players turn the music on their stands and groaning inwardly when you see that we're still not at the last page. Fitkin seems to enjoy making large structures by bolting together lots of little bits of mundane material together in interesting ways. When we finally got to what I guess must have been the big moment in this piece, it was a bit too mundane for my taste; a little repeated descending phrase on F E C G, like a fragment of a TV theme you couldn't quite recognise. I didn't have the patience.

The gentleman sitting behind me fell asleep during the Fitkin, in order I supose to get himself in the mood for Nicholas Scott's Parrot Shaped Nightmare. Which I didn't much take to, but other people seem to have really liked. It certainly had a rhythmic energy which the concert had up to that point lacked, with the ensemble, here violin and piano, gleefully playing even faster than the composer's marking.