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.

Space Shifters exhibition at the Hayward Gallery ***

Space Shifters

Hayward Gallery, 21st December 2018

Here is another one of the cleverly constructed exhibitions from the Hayward team which brings together a variety of visual works (20 in total), in different media, from different artists which delight, intrigue and entertain. The works span some five decades, (with some new commissions), are informed by a minimalist aesthetic and look to explore our perception of space. Materials are pure and often translucent, indeed many of these works relied on advances in material technologies to become possible, forms and lines are sharp and clearly defined. There is a bit of reflection going on, as in mirroring not contemplation. If art is the manipulation of light then this is, definitively, art.

Before the refurb the gallery offered us Psycho Buildings in 2007, Invisible in 2012, Light Show in 2013 and The Human Factor in 2014. There may have been others the Tourist failed to remember. They pack in the punters, make you think and maybe smile, at least whilst you are there and make good use of the now smartened up Hayward space. Perfect for the Instagram generation.

And that, at the risk of coming across like the old buffer I am, is part of the problem. Whilst individually there are some fine works on show here, the overall effect is a little numbing and, once the novelty has passed, not entirely fulfilling. Still if you take the exhibition as you find it you will enjoy it, no doubt about that, and there maybe one or two artists whose work is sufficiently interesting, work that really does change and engage with the space around it, to make you want to seek out more.

For me those artists would have to include Richard Wilson and his installation 20-50 originally created in 1987. Now there was a bit of a queue to see 20-50 and I confess that we, for on this visit we were a large tribe, the SO, BD, LD, MSBD, TTEW and MSGS alongside the Tourist as expedition leader, frankly didn’t have time. But you must make time, for if you have not seen it then you are in for a treat. The work is doing something of a tour before it sets up in its permanent home in Tasmania where I gather a gambling millionaire has bought it. Now it used to live for many years in the various Saatchi Gallery incarnations (see above) so if you are a contemporary art buff chances are you have seen it. Whilst the outcome will vary according to its location, its function, material and meaning is essentially fixed. Wilson basically floods a room with used engine oil then builds a pier over it so that the viewer is surrounded by the oil on three sides. The mirrored reflection from the utterly smooth, viscous, velvety, unctuous surface makes it feel like you are in a doubled space, stretching down into infinity and revealing every architectural detail of the space above the surface. That surface is dark, unyielding and perfectly flat. The temptation to chuck something in is overwhelming but then so is the desire to preserve this unbroken surface. Oh and the smell is overpowering. This you won’t forget in a hurry.

Mr Wilson is all about intervening into architectural spaces. Inversions, distortions, changing scale and material. He is a big noise in contemporary British sculpture. If you like this check out Slipstream in Terminal 2 at Heathrow, Shack Stack at Grosvenor Waterside, Square the Block on the LSE at the corner of Kingsway and Sardinia Street and A Slice of Reality at Greenwich Peninsula. Readers elsewhere might find one of his public works closer to home. I would loved to have seen Turning the Place Over, Hang on Lads I’ve Got a Great Idea and Queen and Gantry. His work succeeds thanks to the audacity of the ideas, its scale, the way it questions our notions of space and function, the way it disorientates our senses, its humour and the skill and process required in its execution.

Nothing else in the exhibition really comes close. Anish Kapoor’s trademark Non-Object (Door) reflects and distorts the space and things around it including us, like an old style Hall of Mirrors at the funfair. It’s amusing though not as thoughtful as Sky Mirror, Blue on the roof of the gallery which concave, selected surface inverts and saturates in blue the reflected sky above. (The Sky Mirror outside Nottingham Playhouse is another example of the beautifully simple idea. Apparently it is Nottingham’s favourite landmark thus proving the point that contemporary civic art can induce pleasing reactions beyond the purely aesthetic).

Jeppe Hein’s 360º Illusion V is comprised of two rotating mirrors placed at right angles which creates curious double reflections of us and others. Perfect for Homo sapiens who love gawping at each other. Polish artist

Alicja Kwade’s WeltenLinie is an even more satisfying illusion, a steel frame partially filled with double sided mirrors and carefully placed objects which really does mess with our heads. Punters can and do walk into the mirrors, the artificial objects on the floor can and do change shape and colour. You know how it is happening but that doesn’t making it any less fascinating or amusing. Her Medium Median was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery a couple of years ago and was, in a different way, as equally arresting as an installation.

Monika Sosnowka is another Polish artist whose work here, Handrail, subverts interior architecture, here the humble handrail, and is wryly amusing. Larry Bell is an artist I have come across before and his Standing Walls is at the mainmast end of large scale minimalist sculpture. Literally for the purist. As is Robert Irwin’s classic, and slightly menacing, Untitled (Acrylic Column).

Roni Horn is one of a more recent generation of minimalist sculptors who uses glass, here to make a cylinder Untitled (“Everything was slipping as if the universe were a mistake”), which is both simultaneously heavy and light and, for all the world, looks like a pool of water. One of my favourites. As was Ann Veronica Janssens Magic Mirrors (Pink and #2 and Blue). Each is comprised of a shattered pane of safety glass encased by two normal glass sheets lined with filters that allow light to pass through selectively and thus throw shadows on the wall with different, changing and blurring colours. Really captivating as the number of selfies being taken attested to. I will need to check out more of her work.

A century of modernism, and now several decades of minimalism, in art, architecture, design, fashion, graphics and so on, means that we are now all pretty much programmed to embrace this aesthetic. There may be a generation that prefers velour and Toby jugs but they are on the way out. Glass, steel, perspex, resin, artificial light, saturated colours, our world is surrounded by these materials. It is work we work, where we study and where we live. We see, touch and feel spaces and objects informed by mathematics and not messy or maximalist organics. Is this what makes these art works so seductive and will this ever change? Search me.

Glass and Reich: LSO at the Barbican review ***

Divine Geometry: London Symphony Orchestra, Kristjan Jarvi, Simone Dinnerstein (piano)

Barbican Hall, 29th November 2018

  • Charles Coleman – Drenched
  • Charles Coleman – Bach Inspired
  • Philip Glass – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Kristjan Jarvi – Too Hot to Handel
  • Steve Reich – Music for Ensemble and Orchestra

Funny one this. As part of our project to embrace the classics of minimalism the Tourist, MSBD and MSBDB schlepped off to the Barbican. Primarily to hear the new(wish) Reich piece in its UK premiere, and to catch up with the Glass, similarly making its UK debut. Didn’t really have a Scooby about the other pieces I am afraid.

Now somewhere in Estonia, (actually it relocated to the US) there is a factory which produces conductors. It is family owned and goes by the name of Jarvi and Sons, (in Estonian obvs). For Kristjan, along with older brother Paavo, is son to the veteran, and oft recorded, conductor Neeme. Sister Maarika plays the flute though I have no doubt she too is a dab hand with a baton.

Anyway young Kristjan, who has the gig as the AD of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic which he founded, sees himself as a bit of a musical chameleon and genre-buster. Having got his hands on the LSO again he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to showcase one of his own works, Too Hot To Handel, nor a couple from his mate Charles Coleman. Drenched takes Handel’s Water Music as its starting point, and Bach Inspired, er, a string-only snatch from the Mighty One’s Well-Tempered Clavier and his “Nun common Der Heiden Helland” chorale, plus a couple of his own movements. Too Hot …. you can work out for yourself. Suffice to say it has pretty much undigested chunks of GF’s Concerto grossi mashed up with KJ’s own Stravinskian, post-minimalism, as well as a lot of running around for the LSO’s three percussionists, Neil Percy, Sam Walton and Jake Brown, and a starring role for Chris Hill on bass guitar (I kid you not).

Worshipping at the altar of the Baroque Gods and drawing the parallels with the Minimalists is self evidently “a good idea” but always better done with the C17 and C18 originals. These pastiches, whilst certainly not dull, and played with gusto by the LSO, ended up as classic classical “classic rock” if you get my drift. Not quite Smashie and Nicey, but skirting awfully close. The Coleman pieces, especially Bach Inspired had a bit more heterogenous invention, and wit, about them but even so it was all a bit weird to be honest. At near 40 minutes and over 13 movements, Jarvi’s own work I am afraid outstayed its welcome, was shown the door but still came back again.

As for the main events, well the Piano Concerto No 3 was a little too close to the pleasant warm waves of swirling arpeggios that Philip Glass can presumably churn out in his sleep and the Steve Reich piece was, guess what, just amazing.

The Concerto was written for this evening’s soloist Simone Dinnerstein and premiered in Boston in 2017. Glass, now 81, has moved a long way from the “hard-core” rhythmic minimalism (“repetitive processes” in his argot) of the 1960s and 1970s. His music now is much more melodic, chromatic, even romantic. When he composes for piano, as with the three concertos, the lovely Etudes and Metamorphosis and the film music transcriptions, he is a right old softie and gets all emotional. It can be moving and occasionally stirring stuff but it is mostly like being immersed in a nice warm metaphorical bath with Brahms and Rachmaninov.

You could be forgiven for thinking popular art-house film soundtracks, which have been, after all, a fair contributor to the old boy’s estate in the last few decades. And one of the reasons, perhaps along with his generosity in collaboration, why his music has been so influential. In fact it is pretty difficult to think of another composer of music in the second half of the C20, and into this millennium, his musical ideas have been quite so pervasive. It will be interesting to see whether Glass’s legacy, like much of post-modernist culture, survives. Whilst love for Schubert, another compositional production line, who I suspect Glass would most liked to be identified with, has pretty much continued to increase year in, year out since his early death, other comparable piece-work composers from the Baroque itself, Bach say, or Vivaldi, spent hundreds of years being ignored. Mind you in the age of digital junk it will be hard to forgot anything ever.

Yet amidst all the familiarity Glass is still capable of surprises and here it comes in the final movement, which is simplicity itself, being a homage of sorts to Arvo Part, he of the “holy minimalism”, with a simple, chiming melody over a bass drone. The introspective concerto, which is essentially three slow to medium paced movements, begins with soft oscillating chords against a processional base-line, which drifts in and out of the similarly paced orchestra. Crotchets become quavers then triplets, rising to a swell and then subsiding. The second chaconne-ish movement is all repeated arpeggios which ends with the unflashiest of cadenzas.

As its dedicatee, and given she is an acknowledged interpreter of Glass’s music, Ms Dinnerstein, who is what you might call a “self-made” performer, more in line with the You Tube pop generation, was unsurprisingly accomplished in her playing, technique, emotion and understanding all present and correct, and if it didn’t wow then that is more the fault of the music than her or the LSO strings. She encored with a Glass Etude. I would have liked more of those.

In less than a month’s time Philip Glass’s 12th Symphony will be premiered in LA under the baton of fellow “minimalist” grandee John Adams. You can’t fault his work ethic.

Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, premiered earlier this year in NYC, is Steve Reich’s first large scale orchestral work for 30 years, following The Four Sections in 1987. Reich is of course as much performer as composer and his ostensible reason for avoiding the orchestra genre was that performers were not really up to the task. Fair enough, but, as he admits, that is no longer true as there are now orchestral players, notably percussionists, but also specialists in the other sections, as well as the latest generation of conductors, who are more than up to the task, and who love and relish the challenge of creating his stunning sound-world. Mr Reich is a year older than his peer Mr Glass but they are chalk and cheese when it comes to productivity, as well as, despite the “minimalist” label, musical style.

SR can go a couple of years without a new piece. This is is no way a criticism for when they do arrive his compositions continue to be works of staggering genius. This, of course, assumes you are predisposed to his marrying of pulse, rhythm and process. Here he has contrasted an “ensemble”, lead strings, principal woodwinds, tuned pianos, vibraphones and keyboards, with an “orchestra” which adds a full string section and brass, in the form of four trumpets, to that ensemble.

The work is made up of five sections/movements, in typical Reich style simply numbered 1 to 5, which together form a Bartokian arch. the tempo is fixed across the sections but the speed varies according to note value: 16ths, 8ths, quarters, then 8ths and 16ths again. The key similarly changes across the movements, a minor third each time, from A to C to E flat to F sharp and back to A. All this remains moreorless gobbledygook to the Tourist but I reckon, as and when a recording appears, the structure that can be felt on first listening, will be understood by this musical dummy after repeated exposure. That is the big picture: second by second though it is the magical intricacy of melodic fragments repeated, echoed, chased and overlapped by different paired members of the ensemble with the rhythmic backbone provided by the rest of the orchestra. A Concerto grossi to match Handel though maybe not quite the Daddy of the form, Corelli.

Mr Jarvi, who likes a lively workout on the rostrum, seemed to have the measure of the piece, though I wouldn’t mind hearing the LSO take it on again under, say, their Conductor the Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. He is, after all, the expert on great American music of the C20 and there was, I’ll warrant, a Coplandian/Ivesian twinkle in some of Reich’s invention. I see he will be premiering it in San Francisco next year as it revolves around the remaining or the six orchestras that co-commissioned it.