Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Riot Ensemble, Club Inégales

Last night I heard the first set of an evening of new(ish) music in a Euston back street. Club Inégales is not Milton Court, King's Place or The Forge (for example), being a private bar that generously lends itself to a eclectic, jazz-centric programme. As a space for musical experimentation it's (acoustically) not ideal, though the bar lends itself to the now-established trend for classical events such as Nonclassical and DG's Yellow Lounge that make a conscious effort to remove the threat of formality from concert-giving-and-going. The evening was introduced by Peter Wiegold, who instigated the club and perfoms with his own jazz ensemble (a super ensemble), who reminded us that there is a dedicated 'Rant' night where individuals can discuss their perception and frustration at the contemproary music scene. Clearly the space and its purpose are geared towards presenting music as present, approachable and purposeful.

This was the ambience that Aaron Holloway-Nahum, compering the evening on behalf of the collective The Riot Ensemble, seemed to be looking to generate. Brisk but useful introductions to each piece in the set was welcome, with a pair of screens in the room displaying the composer's name (and the text of the one song of the set).

The programme had been convened around this being Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday year, so the opening work was a wind quintet of his own. After a restive opening, Refrains and Choruses (1957) settles into continually moving tableaux of shapes and colour, rather like watching a lava lamp up close. I imagine it's a synaesthete's dream. The Atéa Quintet played very competently, assimilating not only the non-acoustic but also the slow exit-trickle of those who had, commendably, decided to give the event a go but felt that their Friday night held more potential than Birtwistle's investigative early music.

Next up, a first composition by the now celebrated Thomas Adès. The Lover In Winter is a setting of a Latin text for countertenor and piano which mezzo-soprano Celeste Cronje managed well. The dry sound in the room is particularly hard work for singers performing acoustically and this song used a treacherous mixture of long climbing melismas and phrases and ended with exposed, pontillist notes.

Cronje was well-supported by the pianist Adam Swayne, who followed the song with a new piece by Joanne Lee. The Hungry Caterpillar is an undergraduate piece for solo piano, and Lee says:
Piano is my first instrument so I was writing many piano pieces at this early stage. The work was a study in taking an 8-pitch tone row and seeing how this could be developed, a metamorphosis akin to a caterpillar/butterfly.
As good as her word, the music grows out of an apparenly minimalist opening to investigate the potential of a fifth with rhythmic rigour and increasingly heterogeneous lines in opposing hands. It's tricky! This was the first piece that really came alive in the concert, percussive and stark and brilliantly performed.

Finally, The Atéa Quintet returned to play Alastair Putt's Halazuni:

This what Alastair Putt says:
[Halazuni] takes its inspiration from arabesque decoration in Islamic art, and the patterns and lines therein. I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful abstraction of such art, and its juxtaposition of rigid patterns and shapes with more florid, elaborate elements.
This is what the music does, pursuing the possibilities of the kernel of a melodic or harmonic idea exhaustively in a sequence of dovetailed sections. Though Putt offers details of the rigourous mathematical framework in which the composition is organsied, one doesn't hear cogs or scaffolding. The music sits somewhere between a familiar harmonic parish and something more alien, something more, well, Moorish. Certainly I couldn't help but think of Britten's vistas across the Mediterranean lagoon in Death In Venice conjured specifically by Putt's use of flutter-tongued flute.

If I needed one further element to help me absorb this final piece then - and I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record - it would have been to hear this piece in a marginally more generous space, if only to allow proper bloom on the intruments (and reward the dedicated music-making of the quintet). As Putt himself says of writing with the audience in mind, "I do care about how the music sounds in real space rather than in some abstract, formalised sphere". Well, he's not alone.

Nonetheless, this was a fine set in a carefully considered evening's programming. It was also a good opportunity to hear more-chamber proportioned work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle in his birthday year and to shift the emphasis on listening from confronting his expressionism to engaging with his more ruminative style.

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