Friday, 1 May 2009

Thursday night

I had an interesting conversation with Rory Boyle yesterday, one of the senior composition teachers here. He thought I was on difficult ground with this blog, trying to both be a critic and a composer. He's right; I've always found this a bit of a strange balancing act. Maybe I should just shut up criticising and write a piece. On the other hand, some people reckon I'm pulling my punches, even though I feel like I've been quite harsh on occasion.

Which preamble leads up to me saying that I'm slightly going to partially shy away from reviewing last night's concert. Principally from a lack of time; I have to run around and organise my own piece today, the already notorious sequenza for trombone Exercise, at 1730 tonight in the cafe foyer.

So, briefly then, last night's concert featured a new one-of-everything sinfonia-type ensemble made up of some of the best student players; The Music Lab. It started off, though, with a sequenza for violin by head of composition and my PhD tutor Gordon McPherson. It was played by a performer with whom I am also to some extent entangled, Kay Stephen, who was one of the players in my extended devised performance work of last year The Other Other Hand. So, with interests declared, I thought it was brilliant. What Gordon has done here is to compose not merely a piece of music, but an entire performance. Specifically written for Kay, it featured both her singing along with the violin and stamping her feet violently on the floor; the violin writing was full of attack and drive. It was all very Gordon, and all very Kay. Heathen, it's called.

Four of the pieces on the programme I'm going to skip lightly over; Shona Mackay's Turn, Alan James Macdermid's Reaching, Marcos Fernandez Barrero's L'Ombra de Barcino and Marek Pasieczny's Essay, for sixteen players. Last night I think I wasn't really in the mood for this kind of ensemble, falling somewhere between chamber and symphonic; these three pieces all treated this ensemble in an entirely conventional way, and I'm afraid a lot of this music came across to me rather like indifferent 80s TV music, without the irony. Shona's piece was competent but bland, Alan's piece was not very well written, Marcos was well written, a mini-symphony almost, whilst Marek's was to my mind perhaps the most original and succesful of the three.

I'm glad I asked somebody about Claire McKenzie's Game Over, a csardas, otherwise wouldn't have known that as well as being about the computer game Tetris, it also made extensive and apparently humourous use of that game's theme tune. I've never played computer games, you see, on some sort of bizarre personal principle, so I patently didn't entirely 'get' this piece. On the other hand, without even recognising the quote, it's obvious that Claire's thinking here was on a different level. What she was evidently trying to pull off, mostly succesfully, was the trick of having more than one piece of music going on at once, different strands of activity going off in their own directions and then converging again on a point of articulation. Sometimes the single strings of the ensemble seemed rather drowned out, but then probably drowning out is part of this compositional approach. Extremely well conducted by Duk-Kyung Chang, I thought, and all the players, throughout the evening, did a thoroughly good job.

(Oops I forgot to mention Chris Duncan's sequenza for viola Eulogy Capriccio, played by Ronan MacManus, wearing distinctive yellow shoes not unlike those sported by the composer himself. Shoes 2, sequenza 1.)


Chip Michael said...

Interesting thoughts about being a composer/critic... My blog (interchangingidioms) is mostly news, but occasionally I have reviews I've done - mostly of CD's record companies and composer or performers have sent me requesting a review.

Personally, I find the reviewing very helpful in terms of my own musical understanding. I wrote a review of Kevin Puts Clarinet Concerto from a concert given by the Colorado Symphony and it really gave me insight into how my own music might be received. Kevin was nice enough to provide a score prior to the concert so I returned the favour and wrote an extended review of the concerto for him personally, notes on what I thought worked in the score and what didn't come through in the concert (but was obviously in the score). I've not heard back as yet, but again, as a composer I found the process very thought provoking.

- just my 2 cents!

PS - although I am finding the blog is taking on its own life. I am getting on average 2 CD's a week to review....