Bryce Dessner and the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ***

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London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists, Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Rakhi Singh (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello) – Bryce Dessner (electric guitar)

Queen Elizabeth Hall. 10th April 2018

  • Bryce Dessner – Aheym for string quartet
  • Mica Levi – You belong to me for string quartet
  • Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape
  • Steve Reich – Different trains for string quartet and tape (with film from Bill Morrison)

I am pretty sure the last time I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was with a young BD and LD and the SO to see Slava’s Snow Show as a “Christmas Treat”. The SO booked the entertainment without, as is her wont, looking too closely at the details. Which is a shame as she has an aversion to clowns. Not a full blown psychic horror but enough to engender a vague sense of unease. Which is unfortunate as, for those that don’t know, Slava’s Snow Show involves clowns. A lot of clowns. On a journey. In Russian. Being the supportive family that we are we found the SO’s discomfort funnier that the show. We still do.

This was my first visit to the newly refurbished QEH and I can report an already handsome building is now even better looking. It looks like it will pursue a course of adventurous programming, which is marvellous, though I can’t pretend it is all to my taste.

This concert was though. Arse that I am I hadn’t recorded the details correctly in my foolproof diary system so I hadn’t realised Different Trains was on the menu and had no idea the evening would be graced by the presence of Mr Bryce Dessner. Now I am guessing this was in stark contrast to most of the audience, for whom, I assume, he was the main attraction. I do not know if the punters that can now be counted on to fill a hall showcasing minimalist classics have always been there, or whether they are new to the genre, but it doesn’t matter. The whole of arty. trendy, creative London turns up in droves now, (though not so much at venues without the social media presence of the Southbank)., which leaves me looking and feeling even more conscious of my shocking lack of style.

(Where did it all go wrong? I used to be a contender in the sartorial stakes and could oft be found propping up the bar at cutting edge London venues. Honestly. No longer. Now even the pensioner tribe at midweek theatrical matinees looks down on me. That it should come to this. Mind you, it’s all my fault. This too stolid flesh needs melting).

All this crossing of musical boundaries is immensely energising though, and, in some ways, it was minimalism that first brought together the the “high” art of classical music with the “popular” art of rock and pop. I would also contend that if it hadn’t been for “classical” composers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring what technology and music from other cultures had to offer, dance music would be much the poorer.

Anyway our man Mr Dessner stands astride the divide, as it were, with his well regarded minimal classical works and his day, or night, job as guitarist for The National. Now, as it happens, I like The National. No expert but I have a few of their albums and saw them support that dreadful old rocker Neil Young a few years ago in Hyde Park. Obviously I don’t mean Neil Young is dreadful. he is akin to a god in my eyes. What I can say though is that The National, along with the likes of Beach House, Death Grips, Eels, John Grant, The Knife, Metronomy and TV on the Radio, ensure that the non-classical section of my CD collection, (I know CDs, ho-ho-ho grandad), isn’t entirely made up of artists who are either older than me or dead. I also appreciate that this is hardly evidence of cutting edge musical taste, and is very white, but, I fear, so is your correspondent. And it also doesn’t mean that as far as I am concerned the best music made in the last few years has come from The Fall, (sadly no longer, why are we not still in a period of national mourning?) and Wire. Worse still, whilst writing this I am listening to Soft Machine. Could it be any worse?

Unsurprisingly Mr Dessner was terrific. I listened to Aheym for string quartet a couple of times before this and it is a worthy and apposite work to set alongside Steve Reich’s string quartet masterpiece. Written in 2009, early on in his catalogue, the title is Yiddish for “homeward” and is inspired by his granny’s stories about Eastern Europe and coming to America. There is a five beat jagged chordal rhythm that runs through the piece which is cut up and syncopated in various ways until a short solo cello line, with pizzicato breaks, takes us to a slower, murky fugal passage, above the cello rocking. This is repeated in a different way before the rhythm returns, with col legno bowing, some scratchy stuff, some very high harmonics and a bit of double stopping to round things off. It is not structurally complex but it is very arresting and every string effect on show was “enhanced” by the close microphones. I loved it though I don’t suppose it will pop up at the Wigmore any time soon.

Mica Levi’s work, written in 2016 for this very ensemble, takes the 1950s song of the title and zeroes in on scraps of music within it. There are three sections to be played in any order. Hannah, a kind of set of passacaglia variations with mad trilling, Jumping, sort of fugal with odd chords moving to tremolos over a cello grind, and Sun, with the higher strings sliding up over the cello drone. It is less interesting than it sounds. Again it was over-amplified for my liking.

Ahed of the interval and before the main event Mr Dessner took to the stage with electric guitar for a performance of Electric Counterpoint. No rock’n’roll razzamatazz here. He looked like one of the stage managers despite having taking a bow earlier after Aheym. EC has one live guitar part, obviously, alongside twelve recorded guitar parts, two on bass. There are three movements, without breaks, the first an 8 part canon with the live guitar over the top and harmonic pulse from the other recorded guitars, the slow movement is similar but with 9 parts and, er, a slower theme, and the final part, again a canon, but with more tonal variation and rhythmic change. It is pure Reich and here the QEH acoustic, the amplification and, obviously, our rock god, really delivered.

Different Trains, commissioned, like Aheym, by the Kronos Quartet, and premiered in this very venue in 1988, is way more interesting than it sounds. The live string quartet is backed by three recorded versions of themselves. This creates the opportunity for 16 part counterpoint and, in line with the concept of the piece, means we listen to a “past we did not witness”. The tape line also includes lines of speech, from Reich’s governess and a train porter, as well as Holocaust victims, as well as “train” noises. The idea is to contrast Reich’s train journeys across America as a child with the horrific journeys made by Jewish children in Europe during the war. The accompanying film from Bill Morrison reinforces the contrast and is, at times, disturbing. The first movement is upbeat, the snatches of conversation brief, and the rhythmic patterns clear and harmonics tonal. The second second is slower and darker with frequent sustains, more harmonic dissonance, and with the train ambience increasing. The final movement takes the voices from the first time and melds them into the music.

I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the performance with the recordings sometimes overwhelming the live performers though I was perched right at the back. Oliver Coates’s cello playing was very fine, as I know from previous performances, and Galya Bisengalieva’s first violin sang, but the second violin and viola parts were a bit muddied. On the other hand having the film footage definitely enhanced the powerful meaning behind Steve’s Reich’s music. (I am assuming the age of the footage is what delivered the “blotchy effects”). The performers were standing and split two by two on stage which made for an antiphonal effect, in mind if not ear.

Even with the sound this was still a fine rendition of a modern masterpiece near Reich’s best. More of this at the QEH please. I promise to smarten up next time.

Oh, and no clowns please.

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