S & H Festival Review

Warwick and Leamington Festival July 2001 (CT) Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington Spa


14th July Joanna MacGregor piano, Smith Quartet Ian Humphries and Charles Mutter violin, Nic Pendlebury viola, Deirdre Cooper cello.
György Ligeti Studies 1,5 and 6 Toshi Ichiyanagi Piano Space (world premiere) Somei Satoh Incarnation 2 John CageWater Music and Quartet in Four Parts Steve Reich Different Trains

15th July Apollo Saxophone Quartet Tim Redpath, Rob Buckland, Andy Scott and David Roach.
Michael Torke July Django Bates Travel Cartoons for the Blind Dominic Muldowney Saxophone Quartet No. 2 (world premiere) Astor Piazzolla Four for Tango Steve Reich New York Counterpoint Graham Fitkin Hurl Roy Powell Bow Out Will GregoryHigh Life

It seems that the Warwick and Leamington Festival becomes more enterprising year by year, this year's programme boasting (and justifiably so) no less than eight world premieres and over fifty works by living composers. No mean feat. The culmination of this year's festival was a weekend of contemporary music masterminded by Joanna MacGregor and Leamington based composer Howard Skempton. In all, six concerts over two days together with workshops and an informal late night appearance by Howard Skempton and his accordion in the bar!

Joanna MacGregor followed her lunchtime solo appearance with an evening of music shared with the Smith Quartet and chose to open the concert with three impressively contrasting Ligeti Studies. No. 1 shows Ligeti very much in the mode of the first movement of his Piano Concerto, revelling in the dazzlingly swift changes of metre, which MacGregor rattled through with astonishing facility. Even when Howard Skempton, who was acting as page turner, could not separate two of the pages she managed to keep going with a smile on her face! The power that MacGregor possesses at the keyboard was immediately evident here although a degree of the detail was lost to the resonant Pump Room acoustic. The often sparser textures of Studies 5 and 6 fared better in the acoustic, No. 5 in particular, being in wonderfully haunting contrast to the motoric aggression of No. 1 whilst the wide dynamic and textural extremes of No. 6 were captured with fine involvement.

The names of Toshi Ichiyanagi and Somei Satoh are little known in this country, the inclusion of their music being in line with one of the festival "themes" of Japan. Born in 1933, Ichiyanagi was a close friend of Toru Takemitsu although his music moved in a very different direction, largely influenced by experimentalism and a period of close involvement with John Cage. His Warwick Arts Society commission, Piano Space, turned out to be a work of atmospheric delicacy, beautifully played by MacGregor. Whilst freely atonal the writing clearly owes much to Cage in its uncluttered textures, the dynamic remaining quiet almost throughout until a passage of swiftly moving chromaticism towards the end comes almost as a relief. It was a great shame that the performance was marred by a mobile phone ringing part way through. Satoh is even less known in this country, indeed, as Howard Skempton pointed out in his spoken introduction at the beginning of the concert, very little is known about him at all. A pity, for his Incarnation 2 is a brief work of tremendous power, tonally exploring slow moving tremelando chord sequences and building to a central climax of shattering proportions that MacGregor exploited magnificently.

The two Cage works with which Joanna MacGregor closed her contribution and the Smith Quartet opened theirs were fascinatingly contrasting in their seemingly worlds apart idioms. Water Music, one of Cage's exercises in chance and an early piece of music theatre, had some highly amusing moments, not least in MacGregor's straight faced delivery. The audience were able to watch the score on a television displayed on the stage as she timed her various entries which included re-tuning a radio at numerous points, shuffling a pack of cards, playing a whistle and water warbler and of course pouring the all important water of the title from one jug to another (amplified of course!) The Quartet in Four Parts, Cage's own "Four Seasons", showed itself to have moments of real beauty in its moving, gently dissonant, simplicity, although I have to say that for this listener at least, the early minimalism of the third movement had rather out stayed its welcome by its half way point. The brief final Quad libet was much more enjoyable.

It was in Steve Reich's masterpiece (and I do not use the word lightly) Different Trains that we heard the highlight of the evening. On the surface, it may seem impossible that the quintessentially minimalist language of Reich could result in a work of such profound emotional depth, yet it is this very fact that marks out his achievement as truly outstanding. As a child Reich had spent much time on trains, travelling between his estranged parents who had settled in New York and Los Angeles respectively. As a Jew in America, the composer later came to realise the very different train journeys that had been taking place by European Jews at the same time during the early forties. The spoken dialogue that therefore accompanies the work, the speech patterns of which give Reich the rhythmic impetus for his music, are a mixture of references to his childhood and the more sinister backdrop to his inspiration. The Smith Quartet gave a performance that captured the evolving patterns and emotions of the work admirably, notably the descent into the more static music of the central abyss, surely one of the most striking passages in any of Reich's works.

It was tremendously pleasing (I am sure most of all for the organisers!) to see the excellent turnout for this concert and once again on the following night the Apollo Saxophone Quartet had a lively, substantial audience for the final concert of the festival. Michael Torke's July proved to be an exciting opener, it's dance like minimalist influenced rhythms articulated with stunning clarity and tautness of ensemble by the players. The homogenous sound of the quartet sounded immediately suited to the acoustics of the hall and the players exploited this with some superbly graded dynamic contrast. Contrast in fact was very much the theme of the evening, the eclectic programme showing that the quartet are capable of wide ranging versatility in their repertoire. Travel Cartoons for the Blind by the British jazz musician Django Bates is a case in point, each of its brief movements depicting a different mode of transport. It was the wacky final movement, My First Scooter, that had the audience laughing here, scored for four soprano saxes with two tuned down a quartet tone, the result being some outrageous horn imitations as the learner hurtles down the street for the first time. Great fun and brilliantly played!

Dominic Muldowney was on hand to give a lively and informative introduction to his new work, another Warwick Arts Society commission. Interestingly he cited his three greatest musical heroes as Stravinsky, Bach and Adolphe Sax, the saxophone having figured in certain other works, notably a fine concerto of some years ago for John Harle. As a starting point the work takes a clear classical structure as its model with a sonata opening movement, slower second movement which develops from the "fanning out" of the opening unison statement, a scherzo like third movement and a quirky finale which makes much use of the familiar b-a-c-h motif. I felt that the predominantly quaver pulse of the first movement gave it a slight flavour of John Adams or perhaps even the Torke heard at the outset, mixed with passages of more striking originality and all beautifully played, particularly in the more delicate material. The slow movement, in complete contrast, had a feeling of Kurt Weill about it, making much use of a slowly treading base line on the baritone sax. The brief, lively scherzo settled to a luminous final chord before the last movement, which features the players standing at various points as they each in turn announce their statement of the theme, which Muldowney subjects to an impressive variety of canonic treatments.

The first half concluded with an enjoyable tango, originally written for the Kronos Quartet and very much in predictable Piazzolla mould. Once again, the quartet gave a performance of panache in music which is considerably more difficult to play than it sounds!

This new arrangement of Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint was prepared by Tim Redpath specifically for this concert and for the first couple of minutes I experienced a few doubts as to whether the close knit sound of the quartet was suited to the score. Any doubts were soon dispelled as the work progressed, with some thrilling sounds, notably from the "throbbing" baritone sax and good integration of the live quartet with the backing tape. It was interesting to hear the Reich alongside Graham Fitkin's Hurl that followed, there being a common element in the sound world of both composers. Fitkin's music can be highly demanding on the players yet the energy demonstrated here was astonishing given the demands of earlier works in the programme. For all its lively rhythmic writing Fitkin skilfully integrates passages of sometimes touching tenderness, the result being a work of surprising contrast and startling ingenuity.

For the final two pieces it was out and out jazz followed by popular culture in Roy Powell's Bow Out and Will Gregory's High Life. Powell is a practising jazz musician resident in Norway and his inventive Bow Out was written as a tribute to Miles Davis. Again combining the live quartet with a backing tape the often relaxed atmosphere of the piece was effectively captured and it was clear that the players were at home with the quasi- popular idiom of the music. The same could be said of Gregory's work, again showing popular overtones with a South African influence and a prominent soprano sax part, ably despatched by Tim Redpath. A brief encore by Michael Nyman formed a fitting conclusion to both the concert and the festival, the players receiving a deservedly enthusiastic response from the highly appreciative audience.

Christopher Thomas.

Seen&Heard is part of MusicWeb Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web