S&H Concert Review

Cage, Varese & Reich RNCM Percussion Ensemble: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. 30 November 00 (ANR).

Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music is currently presenting American Reflections, fourteen concerts as part of an intensive celebration of American music. It features music by the award-winning guest composer John Corigliano, Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, a selection of works by Aaron Copland - to celebrate the centenary of his birth - and several works by many other influential American composers.

Tonight's concert was mainly an exploration of seminal American percussion writing presented by the RNCM Percussion Ensemble and directed by Ian Wright, Director of Percussion Studies at the college. Cage's Quartet (1935), in three movements, glistened with a selection of unusual timbres.Early in his career, Cage formed a percussion group specifically to perform his music; due to a lack of finance the group was obliged to improvise many of its instruments. This led to many scrap-yard items being incorporated alongside some of the more traditional percussion instruments. In the Quartet the choice of instruments is left entirely to the performers; the score is without bar-lines - just a selection of musical 'events' - and so we had drain pipes hit by cloth covered table-tennis bats, trash cans, hubcaps, brake drums from wrecked cars and, ironically, an unruly suspended cymbal that refused simply to suspend!

Equally convincing was the performance of Varèse's Ionisation, a work that received its first performance in New York in 1933. The sounds of a busy city are brilliantly recaptured; the anvils, string-drum and sirens are perfectly woven into the musical texture. The piece still sounds entirely fresh today; however, maybe this is true of most pieces for percussion ensemble.

After a rather vapid performance of Steve Reich's Sextet, where the buzzing, modern synthesizers disrupted the flow of the melodic lines and the playing was, on the whole, rather flat, we had a 'performance' of Cage's infamous 4' 33" by Martin Roscoe as the debut performance in his new post as Head of Keyboard Studies at the College. We had the usual laughs, rustling programmes, throat clearings, squeaking chairs and a veritable choir of coughs. It all made me realise how lucky we are to have music in our lives to block out such racket from time to time!

Ailís Ní Ríain


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