Stockhausen chamber music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Marco Stroppa (sound design)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2nd June 2019

Karlheinz Stockhausen

  • Zyklus for percussion
  • Mantra for 2 pianos with 12 antique cymbals, woodblock & 2 ring modulators (and shortwave radio/tape) 

I confess. I was defeated by the performance of Donnerstag aus Licht by Le Balcon and the London Sinfonietta in the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks before this. This is the “accessible” Thursday instalment of Stockhausen cycle of operas taken from the days of the week and mixes his own personal history with that of the Germany of his youth before, and this is where I ducked out, going off into a load of cosmic mumbo jumbo as was the maestro’s want. That is not to say that I wasn’t fascinated by the first act and a half, musically and in terms of the performance, just that I couldn’t engage with whatever message is being conveyed. And I was a bit tired.

So maybe I had to conclude that I was just not up to the task of understanding the work of the man who revolutionised contemporary classical music. I would expect that the vast majority of you, (vast in this context being an abstract concept), if you can even be bothered to YouTube a bit of Stockhausen’s music, will think it a mighty load of old shite. I sympathise. But if you find yourself being stealthily drawn into the world of modern and contemporary classical music, for sure there are no tunes but structures, forms, sounds, ideas, emotions, inventions, in fact everything music is, is all still present and correct, and you are of a slightly nerdy bent, fascinated by the “maths” of music, then old Karlheinz needs to be tackled. Even if he was a grade A space cadet, believing he emanated from the star Sirius.

So imagine my surprise when, here in this recital, and in other smaller scale and earlier works I have subsequently explored, I discovered that there is far less to be intimidated about that I had imagines. In fact some of KS’s music positively rocks.

Case in point. Zyklus for percussion. Zyklus means cycle I gather in German. So the instruments are arranged in a circle. The “score” in a ring binder. The soloist can start where he/she likes and go round until he/she gets back to where he/she started. The notation is readable either way up as well. The keyed instruments, (marimba, vibraphone), are represented with traditional notation, but only for glissandos, but for the unpitched instruments, (drums, tom-toms, cymbals and other assorted metal and wooden paraphernalia,) KS dreamt up a new, graphic, depiction of the rhythms. All instruments are within easy reach of the player.

Given the freedom afforded the percussionist, and the vast array of instruments, this is as much theatre as music. Dirk Rothbrust, who works out of Cologne, is plainly a dab hand at this sort of caper and a born showman, channeling his inner Bonzo Bonham. However, clocking in at 15 minutes, Zyklus avoids the worst excesses of the 1970s heavy rock gods. And it is way more interesting in terms of textures and qualities.

The main event, the Mantra for 2 pianos and other stuff, was a far meatier affair. Over an hour in fact. I was expecting much from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, who are the unparalleled champions of this sort of music. And they delivered. This is a heck of a piece of music. Can’t say I was transfixed throughout but there is still much to take in, admire and, yes, even enjoy.

The piece, premiered in 1970, marked a return to fully notated music after the years of experimentation with more esoteric “indeterminate” instructions for performers. It wears its Asian musical influences on its sleeves and, surprise, surprise, it actually has a tune you can hum. Namely the counterpointed melody, (“formula” in Stockhausen speak), of the “Mantra” which is subsequently subject to seemingly endless expansion and contraction. Not the kind of easy to follow repetition offered up by minimalism, nor the classic theme and variations, (as no notes are varied), but, mostly, very structured transpositions and transformations of the four segment, thirteen note, mantra, initially just four very condensed chords.

With electronic manipulation via ring modulators, (nope, me neither, but fortunately your man Marco Stroppa in the middle of the hall was handy with electronics), and some antique cymbals (crotales) and wood blocks thrown in for texture and to allow the two pianists to signal the change of sections to each other. Quick, slow, loud, quiet, inversions, oscillations, vibratos, some burbling morse code from a short wave radio, (it was the 1960s kids, no mobiles or Spotify), fights between the two pianos, even some vocal squawking from M Aimard and Ms Stefanovich at one point. It all ends with a kind of 10 minute speeded up reprise of the previous hour before the mantra growls into the end.

Read Wiki if you want to learn more about the ingenuity of the structure. Let’s be honest though it will only make sense to the ear of the expert. But, I repeat, what is amazing is that even a dummy like the Tourist, whose only qualification for enjoying this sort of stuff is open enthusiasm, can discern the patterns and can be intrigued, and at times amazed, by the results. Like Zyklus the “performance” adds to the impact of the music.

OK so it won’t be the opening number at the next demeaning shindig Chez Tourist, nor am I likely to invest in a recording, but this was undeniably worth the investment of a few quid and an hour. And the QEH has the ideal acoustic to present such a piece now all the junk has been cleaned out. Certainly better than the RFH next door.

Go on give this sort of stuff a whirl. I dare you. You never know. 

Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

The Women of Whitechapel at the ENO review *****

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel

English National Opera, 3rd April 2019

Composer Iain Bell and his librettist Emma Jenkins wanted to call this just The Women of Whitechapel. Some marketing types at the ENO decided it needed to be prefixed with the title of the infamous murderer, charitably I suppose to let the potential audience know its subject. Worse, to continue the tiresome obsession with perpetrator and not victims. For this opera is specifically written about the women who were murdered. The murderer does not appear. Shame then that the creator’s original intentions could not have been fully honoured. Mind you I see that some bozo US deathcore band has appropriated the grotesque misogynistic fixation at the heart of this story by calling themselves Whitechapel. The band are in their 30s. Grow up lads.

I was predisposed to this new opera from the start. And I was extremely impressed with the end result. I see some proper reviewers who, to be fair, know their opera unlike the Tourist, think the opera is lacking in dramatic impact. I disagree. Yes there is no central single heroine to latch on to, there is no narrative arc towards some sort of tragedy or redemption, there are a fair few characters, the overall feel of the piece is dark and it is made up of a procession of set pieces. But that reflects the story of the five women that Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins wanted to tell, (based on scrupulous research where possible as well as some leaps of imagination). For me it was very powerful and very involving throughout.

I also accept that some of Iain Bell’s music and the way in which Daniel Kramer directed many of the scenes verged, on occasion, towards Les Mis style caricature, though this is no bad thing in terms of the immediacy of impact. However the more obvious inspiration might be Britten, Peter Grimes for the tone of the piece, and Death in Venice for the musical colouring. Worthy template. Mr Bell does not have BB’s compositional facility but the mix of solo and ensemble pieces, the set pieces with chorus, the unusual instrumentation, (the eerie elastic tone of the cimbalom to signify the presence of the murderer for example), the shifting in and out of tonal and more dissonant, atonal music, all conjure up a similar atmosphere.

The opera is centred on the last of the known victims, Mary Kelly, superbly sung and realised by Natalya Romaniw. Mr Bell and Ms Jenkins have created roles specifically for the mature voices of some ENO big stars, namely Marie McLaughlin (Annie Chapman), Janis Kelly (Polly Nicholls), Susan Bullock (Liz Stride) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes), as well as the redoubtable Josephine Barstow as Maud, the proprieter of the doss house where the women are forced to live. The illustrious cast is further enhanced by the presence of Alan Opie as the aloof Pathologist who carries out the autopsies on the women’s bodies, Robert Hayward as the compromised Chief of Police and Paul Sheehan as the intimidated Coroner. From the current ENO vintage Nicky Spence provides a lighter touch as Sergeant Strong, James Cleverton is a Photographer with dubious intentions, William Morgan a rather underwritten, reformist Writer and Alex Otterburn is Squibby a local butcher’s boy. On the evening I attended Sophia Elton also stood out as Mary’s voiceless daughter Magpie.

Soutra Gilmour has conjured up another striking set, though it is sombre and dark, (and a bit Goth), in line with the mood of the piece, which is sufficiently versatile to persuade as doss-house, pub, street, mortuary and funeral procession for the coup de theatre of the, slightly over-long, ending (in which Paul Anderson’s lighting design, literally, really shines). Martyn Brabbins’s enthusiasm for the score and the commitment of the ENO Orchestra was never in doubt even in the slightly padded passages.

I think the opera makes its points about the callous way that the patriarchal society of the day treats these poor women – the murderer is simply an extension of the more “respectable” men that abuse them – the solace and support they take from each other and their overwhelming fear as the threat mounts. On its own this work cannot counter a century of writing out the victims as the expense of the sick fascination with the male perpetrator, (turn on your TV any night of the week to see that is still par for the course), but it is a brave, ambitious and engrossing attempt to do so and to provide a valid three hours of musical theatre. The symbolism, the Minotaur metaphor, the male chorus poking through the windows of the doss-house, the final ascension, is thought through and adds texture to the naturalism of previous scenes. The more poetic passages in Emma Jenkins’s libretto similarly contrast with the vernacular episodes.

I read a fair few reviews in thinking about this. They were all written by blokes. There were, with few exceptions, wrong about this. Presumably they would have been happier seeing yet another production of that scrupulously unmanipulative tale of female agency Madama Butterfly.

Ligeti Immersion Day at the Barbican review ****

Ligeti Immersion Day, Guildhall Musicians, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Sofi Jeaninn (conductor), Augustin Hadelich (violin), Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Milton Court Concert Hall, St Giles’ Cripplegate, Barbican Hall, 2nd March 2019

Not obligatory to illustrate the world of Gyorgy Ligeti with a “universe” picture. But given the associations of, particularly, his micropolyphonic and choral music, with such themes, (via, amongst others, its use by Stanley Kubrick in 2001 A Space Odyssey), I figured, why not? And this image. courtesy of the Hubble telescope is a beauty no? Just like Ligeti’s music.

From a relatively recent standing start I have immersed myself in Ligeti’s music, of which there are essentially three periods, the Bartokian, “secret” early music, the micropolyphonic phase, and the final polymodal, polyrhythmic works after the four year hiatus around 1980. All his work though incorporates pulse, process and humour and a fascination with pitch, texture and harmony. His music is intriguing but there is usually some immediate appeal. Its structures, often deliberately, hold back emotion, or show it in an exaggerated or comic way, perhaps a reflection of his extraordinary life story. Yet beneath the surface scepticism it worms its way in to your head and heart. Well it does me. It is easy to see why he is now probably the most popular modernist composer.

At the top pf his game he is up there with Bach and Beethoven. So you can imagine how excited I was by this Immersion Day, which followed a similar, though smaller scale celebration at QEH last year under the direction of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. This day kicked off with the documentary film All Clouds Are Clocks, then to Milton Court for a selection of chamber works from students at the Guildhall, a chat by Ligeti expert Tim Rutherford-Johnson, a survey of unaccompanied choral works at St Giles’ Cripplegate by the BBC Singers and finally some of the key orchestral works with the BBC SO under the baton of Sakari Oramo including the two late concertos for violin and piano. Here’s the complete list.

  • Musica ricerata
  • 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet
  • Horn Trio
  • Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel
  • Éjszaka – Reggel
  • Zwei Kanons
  • Dri Phantasien
  • Idegen földön
  • Húsvét
  • Betlehemi királyok
  • Lux Aeterna
  • Magány
  • Nonsense Madrigals
  • Clocks and Clouds
  • Violin Concerto
  • Piano Concerto
  • Atmosphères
  • San Francisco Polyphony

I’ll spare you a great long regurgitation of the programme notes. Hardly seems worth it for the two readers who might stumble across this. Highlights then? The Horn Trio, Ligeti’s first statement of his mature style from 1982, which looks backwards in some ways to the Romantics but also contains astonishing new sounds and rhythms. A shout out to Karen Starkman’s horn playing, which was equally effective alongside the varied miniatures of the 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet. Best though was Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel, (with pipes, drums, fiddle) from 2000, which sets four poems by Ligeti’s Hungarian mate Sandor Weores for mezzo-soprano, to a background of bonkers tuned and untuned percussion. Pure imagination. I particularly enjoyed the short, folk based, early choral pieces but star billing went to Lux Aeterna, the piece which Kubrick purloined, and which is the very definition of other worldly. Perfection from the BBC Singers. And in the evening, well all amazing but particularly Nicolas Hodges’s direct take on the metrical patters of the Piano Concerto from 1988 and, best of all, the closing San Francisco Polyphony, an eleven minute concerto for large orchestra which represents just about every idea GL ever had. Just immense.

Steve Reich: London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

London Sinfonietta, Synergy Vocals, Micaela Haslam, Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Sound Intermedia

Royal Festival Hall, 12th February in 2019

Steve Reich

  • Clapping Music
  • Runner for Large Ensemble
  • Music for 18 Musicians

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? The good thing, in this case, being the minimalist music of Steve Reich. There are those music lovers for whom just a few minutes sets their teeth on edge I gather. Not me though. Repetition, repetition, repetition. That’s what I crave. Except that it isn’t really repetitive. It is just structured sound. Built on rhythm. Which evolves. As has Mr Reich’s music. Perfectly demonstrated in this programme.

SR composed Clapping Music in 1972 as an antidote to all the paraphernalia and kit that the Steve Reich Ensemble required to perform his major compositions at that time, (as witnessed by Music for 18 Musicians after the interval). Two performers and their hands. One part fixed, the other repeatedly moving from unison to one beat ahead then back again. Clever clogs. SR, and the two performers here, David Hockings and Tim Palmer. Looks easy? Try it with the help of the app. It isn’t.

Runner for Large Ensemble, of winds, percussion, pianos and strings, is a relatively recent work, from 2016, and comprises five sections played without a pause. The tempo remains broadly constant but note durations vary from sixteenths to eighths to a standard Ghanian bell pattern, (Ghana being the source of many of SR’s works), and then reversed. It ends in the wind section with pulses played for as long as the players can sustain. It is not a long work, 15 minutes or so, and has a little less melodic interest that much of what we might term “late period” Reich (though here’s hoping with having many more compositions to come). This is as close to High Baroque as minimalism gets. I loved it.

Though I could listen to SR’s music all day. As it now seems could half of London. Programmes of Reich and Glass’s music, at least the large scale works, now sell out and audiences are no longer comprised of solitary, rather dubious looking, fifty-something blokes (hello Tourist), but the hip and trendy creative twenty-somethings from East London.

I have blathered on before on this blog about Music for 18 Musicians so I’lll keep this short. This was a turning point for SR as pulse and rhythm of the works from the 1960’s and early 1970s (Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Drumming) was augmented by expanded ideas around structure and, especially, harmony, and electronic intervention was curtailed. The movement between chords is still restricted, but, over the piece, there are repeated cycles of 11 chords, each held for two “breaths” from the voices and wind section(clarinets) which the strings follow. The 4 pianos and the mallet instruments deliver a regular rhythmic pulse, and, as the chords are stretched out, small “pieces” in arch form are built on top to create harmony and changes in instrumentation. The effect is like early polyphonic voice compositions with a cantus firmus overlaid with instrumental “melismas”. The sections are divided by cues from the mettalophone who becomes a sort of director and the modulations within chords are marshalled by the bass clarinet. here Timothy Lines. (Andrew Gourlay only conducted Runner).

All clear. It takes a few listens to get the picture and even then it is easy to get lost in the apparent repetition but it helps to get the map in mind. Then the choreography of sound (and movement as percussionists shift position), the way the focus and texture of the sound shifts across the ensemble, becomes clearer, and moves beyond the “hypnotic wash”. Understanding the process reveals the beauty. At least that’s what I think. Synergy Vocals lead by Michaela Haslam are the world’s experts in Reich’s work and the London Sinfonietta has form in Reich too, and together they were, mostly faultless in delivering the seamless ebbe and flow of the music.

Peter Eotvos and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Iveta Apkalna (organ), László Fassang (Hammond organ)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2019

  • Arnold Schoenberg – Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene, Op. 34
  • Bela Bartok – Dance Suite
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Peter Eotvos – Multiversum

A sort of panic purchase this. It is a bit of a faff to use credit for returned tickets at the South Bank. Forgot that a chunk of said credit was about to expire and had already booked most of the concerts I was keen to see. So a bit of fat finger fact finding on the phone ahead of a booked concert and this was the result. Which I promptly forgot about until it popped up in the diary. Still you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bartok and Stravinsky right, and the Eotvos piece (a UK premiere) look like a lark.

Well up to a point. As it turns out Multiversum was a thing to behold but the rest of the programme was less convincing.

What with his Blue Reiter and Expressionist mates, his own daubing and his atmospheric, serialist diddling, Schoenberg was a shoe-in for a film score commission but when it came in 1929, purist that he was, he turned it down and itself wrote this, for an “imaginary” film. It is made up of three moods, Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe and is as dull as everything else I have heard by Schoenberg, whether it be late Romantic gushing, atonal, tonal, or twelve tone. Maybe one day I’ll get it but not so far.

I’ve said before that Bartok’s music is equally fascinating and baffling for me. The Dance Suite manages to be both at the same time. He was commissioned by the Budapest municipality to come up with something which could restore some pride in a Hungary battered by the WWI peace settlement. It’s six movements work as a kind of musical memento mori for the Hungary of history with folk dance music with distinct Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic characters. Like all of Bartok he doesn’t hang around ideas wise so just when you have got your head around one melody he is on to the next one. There are some punchy passages notably in the second Allegro molto (which seems to end with “The Hills Are Alive” !!), the proceeding Allegro vivace and the short, spooky Comodo. The Finale is a suite all by itself. Played the right way, as in the recording I have by the Chicago SO under Solti it is up there with the best of the Stravinsky ballets and Ravel’s most atmospheric works. Here it felt a bit underwhelming.

Things perked up with the Stravinsky, which I have always felt has an air of Shostakovich about it, despite the fact that IS thought DSCH was an appalling hack. The Symphony in Three Movements is really just three, admittedly brilliant and imaginative, movements, written at different times, which IS cobbled together. The Overture: Allegro is as exciting as anything he ever wrote with its motoric string march proceeded by a woodwind and piano scamper. IS was at the height of his fame in New York at the end of WWII and his ballet music was even sampled by Disney. This movement could have fallen straight out of The Rite of Spring albeit with a neo-classical lilt. The Andante: Interlude, L’istesso tempo is led by the harp and was originally intended for a film, The Song of Bernadette. It too has a balletic feel. The finale, Con Moto, was tacked on ahead of the 1945 premiere and comprises a lolloping march, woodwind burble and more keyboard accompaniment. I have heard more urgent and involving performances but Mr Eotvos drove the Philharmonia a little harder than in the prior two pieces to good effect.

Now the composer says the Multiversum was written to channel his interest in “string theory, gravitational waves and the relationships between multiple universes”. Uh oh. I have nothing about contemporary composers describing what prompted and inspired them, and programmatic music has a long history, but sometimes …….. Anyway there are certainly passages in Multiversum where Mr Eotvos goes a little bit B movie, sci-fi on our collective arses, (though thankfully no ondes martenot or electronica), but, cumulatively, across its 35 minutes it does leave a monumental impression. This is largely down to the innovative combination of pipe organ and Hammond organ and the way the orchestra, which is not vast, is placed and combined.

The 20 strong string section was positioned to the audience left, woodwinds to the right, with brass and percussion scattered through the back of the stage. The Hammond organ allows for various pulse-y, lengthened effects, while the main pipe organ, in step-wise motion, generates the throb that sits behind the soundscapes. Together they do say “cosmos” even if at times it was more film score than the mind being stuff of, say, Ligeti or Xenakis.

There are three movements, Expansion, Multiversum and Time and Space, with a kind of Bach-ian construction – Prelude, Toccata, Chorale- though I couldn’t work out much in the way of themes or ideas. There were though some undeniably impressive passages, with inventive harmonies and waves of repetition, and I would happily listen to the piece again, but the influences of Mr Eotvos’s Hungarian heritage, and years spent with Stockhausen and Boulez, were not immediately apparent. He seemed to be having a lot of fun though as did the two soloists and the PO. Iveta Apkalna, dressed in a long, Gothic frock coat, certainly added drama on the RFH’s mighty organ, (her own baby is the brand spanking new Klais organ in the Elbphilharmonie), and Laszlo Fassang showed why he has the market in “classical” Hammond organ sewn up.


Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at King’s Place review *****

Bang on a Can All Stars, BBC Singers, Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Kings Place Hall One, 19th January 2019

I had heard a few snippets of Julia Wolfe’s compositions but freely admit this was a bit of a leap into the unknown. Still what I had heard seemed interesting, I was keen to take in a few of the excellent looking concerts programmed as part of the year long Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place, focussing on women composers, and Anthracite Fields is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

It is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble which was premiered in Philadelphia in 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus and the Bang On A Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe being on of the founders of BOAC, alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang. It is scored for bass (acoustic and electric and here played by Robert Black), keyboards (Vicky Chow), percussion (David Cossin), cello (Mariel Roberts), guitar/voice (Mark Stewart) and clarinet/bass clarinet (Ken Thomson) and, as well as the choir, also requires the services of a sound engineer (Andrew Cotton) and accompanying visuals (Jeff Sung and Don Cieslik).

The piece is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region”. Julia Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania which lies to the South of the coal producing region, Anthracite is the purest form of coal, was mined from the turn of the C19, and by the turn of the C20 the region was powering much of America’s heavy industry. However through the first half of C20 the region declined in importance as the reserves were exhausted and, by the 1960’s, mining had essentially ended. It plays an important role in American industrial and labour history and Ms Wolfe is not the only artist to have explored its legacy. Less than one week later, the Tourist was privileged to see another top drawer, Pulitzer Prize winning, creative work which took inspiration from near this region, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, which, over a century, turned from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the USA.

Julia Wolfe herself had previously addressed the plight of the American worker in Steel Hammer, her “art ballad” about the folk hero John Henry. Her text for Anthracite Fields is drawn from various sources, oral histories and interviews (including her own), local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, a list of contemporary daily activities that use coal power and an impassioned political speech by John L Lewis, a past head of the United Mine Workers Union.

It is made up of five movements together lasting just over an hour. In Foundation, a kind of dark chorale, the choir intone the names of miners killed in accidents, but only those named John with one syllable surnames, there being so many who died. It ends with further chant of representative polysyllabic names which give a flavour of the diversity of countries from which the miners emigrated to this small corner of one State. There is also a poetic passage drawn from the geology of coal formation. Breaker Boys takes a series of nervy rhymes and an interview and describes the painful work of the Breaker Boys, children employed to sort debris from the coal as it came down the chutes from the heads of the mine-shafts. Think folk-rock. The third movement Speech takes the aforementioned John L Lewis’s powerful oratory, “if we must grind up human flesh and bones”, sung here by BOACAS veteran Mark Stewart with choral responses. Flowers is inspired by the list of flowers Barbara Powell, literally a coal-miner’s daughter, recited during an interview with Ms Wolfe. It is gentler in tone than the other movements and, over its memorable rhythmic base, the choir explores some haunting harmonies. The last movement is another list, of activities followed by a rhyme about Phoebe Snow, a fictitious NYC socialite created for an advert whose white gown was unsullied during her railway journey, so pure was the coal fuelling the engine.

Now there is nothing difficult about Julia Wolfe’s music in Anthracite Fields. Quite the reverse. It is almost alarming in its immediacy. At its core it is a minimalist work, driven by the dirge-like rhythms laid down by the various members of the ensemble, and it is not afraid of grungy rock’n’roll. There is plenty of instrumental colour and the 20 or so strong choir have plenty of opportunities to show off. Here, in the well-balanced but enclosed acoustic of Kings Place Hall One, initially at least the band had the upper hand but this seem to be corrected through the second half of Foundation, or maybe it my ears adjusting.

It packs a huge emotional punch and there is nothing subtle about its messages. Bearing all this mind, and if you are prepared to be immersed in the concept, music and projections, you are in for a treat, should this return, as it should (this was its UK premiere). I should imagine it would be even more powerful in the version for a larger choir, 150 strong. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than this though I get that this sort of fusion, which is at the core of the Bang on a Can ethos, lies a bit beyond normal musical boundaries.