Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Tuesday's gig

The Tuesday night concert for Plug 09 started with the next sequenza in the series, for voice, written by Richard Greer and performed by soprano Claire Thompson. From the word go I was completely on board with this theatrically conceived piece. We first heard Claire warming up off stage, then she swanned in and took an A, but... all seemed not right. After a few bars she seemed lost, pulled a crumped sheet of manuscript out of her cleavage, and attempted to carry on. The piece went on like this, with the singer trying for notes which were too high or too low, coughing, delicately running out of breath...

To describe in words this sounds a bit naff, but in performance Claire pulled it off superbly, drawing on her own strong personality and sense of stage presence. For the second half of the piece, Claire sang with her back to us, finally singing some words, at last seeming fully confident and in control. The piece could have been longer and more fully developed, and there was one obvious gag I would love to have seen - at one point she goes to the piano, checks a tricky interval, then sings it back; if it had been me I would have had her sing it back wrong - but overall this was exactly the kind of thing a sequenza should be, in my opinion. (But as my music is all about this kind of stuff, I would say that, wouldn't I!)

Justin Fung's sequenza 'for solo cello and light' did not work at all in my prejudiced opinion. The cellist Feargus Eagan was bathed in a spot, which kind of went on and off a bit, the idea being, according to the programme note 'an attempt to explore […] a rhythm which one could experience visually rather than sonically'. For me, the idea of trying to separate 'light' and 'sound' into two conceptual categories and then try to recombine them is a fundamental misconception. The piece was also very unfortunately marred by somebody who happened to be wandering around backstage and turned on a light, which could be seen hovering over the performers head for the latter part of the piece. Oops, not really Justin's fault, that one.

On the other hand, the musical material I thought was really wonderful; virtually the entire piece done in harmonics, with just nine pizz notes and a couple of open strings, if I observed correctly. That I am able to sit here and say 'nice piece, shame about the light' points up, I think, what is wrong with this approach; with Richard's piece, one couldn't say 'nice piece, shame about the acting', because the 'acting' and the 'piece' were one and the same thing. IMHO.

Gareth Williams Discipline was for the female vocal ensemble Les Sirènes, with the addition of vibraphone and harp. I'm going to skip over this lightly; a straighforward piece, very well written and elegantly directed by Andrew Nunn, who appeared to grow longer arms as the piece went on. Alexei Khevelev's Les fenêtres du verre souillé de Chagall started very well - 'bring back the composer/pianist', I thought, as he sat to the piano sans music and launched into his own piece, honest, virtuosic stuff, quite like Mussorgsky in places - but then it went on. And on, and on, great crashing waves of it, a seemingly endless series of wrong-note Rachmaninovisms, one climax after another... by the eventual end I was thinking cruelly of that old banjo joke? About the definition of a gentleman? As in, a gentleman is someone who can play the banjo - but doesn't.

Next sequenza; for percussion, by Shona McKay, Succession. A reasonable enough piece, well played on the vibraphone by James Swan, in three clear sections, fast slow fast, but... not quite what I would expect for a 'sequenza'. To me there was not very much distinctively vibraphone-istic about it, and the motor wasn't even used, which seems unpardonable to me in this context.

Finally, Steve Forman's Sloop Dreams - what a fantastic piece! There exists rather a lot of sucky repertoire for the percussion ensemble which I've had to sit through in the past; they should throw all that in the bin and play this piece instead. A great start, with washes of recorded ocean starting even while the percussionists were setting up. Three grooves made up the piece; a kind of rumba overlayed with tuned percussion gestures, then a section with Steve playing what looked like a baby orchestral bass drum with his fingers like a giant riq, then a driving groove for cajón and - yes! - car-chase style triangle. Beautifully paced, colourful, inventive, wonderful sounds, and a great performance by all the percussionists, with just enough help from conductor Bede Williams to keep them all together. I left the concert full of joy.


Tom said...

I was thinking cruelly of that old banjo joke? About the definition of a gentleman? As in, a gentleman is someone who can play the banjo - but doesn't.

See also: "Gentleman reviewer"