SoundState Festival: LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Stewart McIlwham (piccolo), Colin Currie (percussion)

Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2019

  • Arne Gieshoff – Burr
  • Anders Hillborg – Sound Atlas
  • Erkki-Sven Tuur – Piccolo Concerto (Solastalgia)
  • Louis Andriessen – Agamemnon
  • Helen Grime – Percussion Concerto

It is amazing what a little bit of knowledge, a dash of pretension and a fair amount of persistence can do. A few of years ago, like any right-minded, gregarious, gainfully employed individual, the Tourist wouldn’t have gone near a concert comprised solely of contemporary classical music. A minority pursuit for the culturally affected. Now I am wondering how many of the Southbank’s SoundState festival to attend. In the end I bottled it and only pitched up to this but there was plenty across this adventurous festival ,for the musically curious to get their teeth, and ears, into. Try it. What have you got to lose.

The draw here, aside from the always perky Marin Alsop on the podium and, of course, the LPO, was the Percussion Concerto from Helen Grime, written for master whacker Colin Currie, and the Louis Andriessen premiere. I also figured three Nordic composers, who I admit I had never heard of, couldn’t be a bad thing. (Though it turns out only one was actually from the region showing how little attention I was paying and the pitfalls of lazy ethnocentricity). And who would’t be tempted by a piccolo concerto.

Well it turned out that the Andriessen was as bold and brassy as expected, the Percussion Concerto will definitely require a revisit but the big surprise, for me if not the cognoscenti as he is already a big noise in their world, was Anders Hillborg’s Sound Atlas.

As Marin Alsop wryly observed her introductory interview with Arne Gieshoff was in danger of lasting longer than the piece itself. It was inspired by a wooden “burr” 3D puzzle, dates from 2014 and certainly had some spunk about it. There was an echo of Elliot Carter in the concentrated energy circling more stable “pedals”.

Estonian Erki-Sven Turr lives on an island in the Baltic Sea, (images of Nordic noir crime drama immediately pop into my head – a dull day and very windy,) and was prompted to write Solastalgia by the visible impact of climate change on his surroundings. Solastalgia is a time coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the distress we feel when we see how the climate is changing the environment of our memory.

(Now my regular reader has probably divined that much agonising has left the Tourist in the Stoical camp, philosophically speaking. We humans will come and go, we are not special, we will have failed to hang around for very long in the scheme of things (despite thinking we are better than every other species) and the earth will get over the damage that our brash, selfish selves do. Still he can’t deny that it is pretty scary to watch how our infantile inability to defer gratification has left us f*cking up so much in my lifetime, with climate the obvious victim).

In Solastalgia the piccolo acts as the squeaky catalyst for much bigger shifts of texture and process across the orchestra.. E-S T describes his “vectorial” compositional style in the programme but I confess it is beyond me. As was frankly this work. Never mind, if you don’t try it you won’t ever know if you like it.

Sound World was commissioned by the LPO alongside the LA Phil, the NDR Elbphilharmonie and Goteborgs Symfoniker, and this was its world premiere. Now this was much more my style. Crystalline is the word used to describe its sound world and the first section, which makes sense giving the extensive use of string micro-tones and the eerie squeals of the glass harmonica, expertly played here by Philipp Marguerre. River of Glass, Vaporised Toy Pianos (!!!), Vortex and Hymn follow this first section and all accurately describe the mood and texture of the music. It is measured in tempo and there is enough relation to diatonic history to make it easy to digest. Ligeti sat on top of Romantic, Sibelian string drones.

Helen Grime, like the three composers mentioned above, had a few words to say ahead of her piece, again receiving its world premiere. For someone so talented she is remarkably modest. To be fair there wasn’t anything ground-breaking about the Concerto in terms of structure, with three movements played straight through, (Bright, Subdued/Lamenting and Fleet-footed/Mercurial), instrumentation or technique, but, if you have one of the best percussionists in the world, then you might as well turn up the virtuosity quotient, which she duly did. The outer movements were predominantly tuned percussion, marimba, glockenspiel and vibe, with the inner section largely tom-toms, bongos, cymbals and woodblocks. The best ideas came with the frenzied, semi-quaver rhythmic repetitions at the beginning and end, counterpointed with strings and with the interplay between soloist and orchestral percussion. The wobbling pitches of the middle section, like all “drum solos”, was remarkable more for CC’s skill than musical inspiration. Even so I was rapt, but then I always am by this musician. Given how excited he was it is remarkable he didn’t crash into anything as he bobbed from one side of the podium to the other.

Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon was here also receiving its European premiere. The inspiration was The Iliad and LA helpfully lays out the Dramatic Personae to include homo-erotic warrior Achilles, defecting bird-watcher Kalchas, the hapless, wind sacrifice Iphigenia and best-served-cold vengeful wife Klytaimnestra, as well as the brutal Mycenaen king himself. I must admit to being a little suspicious of this conceit especially when I saw that LA had pimped up his orchestra with a couple of pianos, a sax, electric and bass guitar and a drum kit. Well, as is always the case with this veteran composer, I should not have worried. The characters do not appear in programmatic sequence, except at the end, when Kassandra, she of the prophecies, steps ups with text from Aeschylus, via Ted Hughes, and here voiced by woodwind Principal Sue Bohling. Instead the colour and tone of the various episodes in the 20 minute piece indicates the various mortals of the story. War and terror are audible, this is Greek tragedy after all, but there are softer, more lyrical passages, notably for oboe and sax. There isn’t too much of the LA post-minimalism with which I am more familiar, though there are echoes of ancient musical structures a la his classic De Staat, but there are jazz infections and syncopated percussion. A kind of post-modern tone poem/film score if you will.

It was a lot to take in but there was more than enough that warrants further examination and would be surprised if any of these pieces fail to get a further outing in years to come. The hall wasn’t full but it was busier than I have seen for many a more traditional programme. That perhaps speaks to the esteem in which Marin Alsop is held. Many a conductor talks a good game when it comes to new music: she, and the LPO, were prepared to put in the hard yards to make it happen. There were certainly four happy looking and grateful composers on stage.

Icebreaker at Kings Place review ****

louis-andriessen-1

Icebreaker: Velocity

Kings Place, 5th May 2018

  • Anna Meredith – Nautilus
  • Michael Gordon – Yo Shakespeare
  • Paul Whitty – nature is a language – can’t you read?
  • David Lang – Slow Movement
  • Louis Andriessen – De snelheid (‘Velocity’)

Boundaries. And their close, and troublesome cousins, borders. The bane of human existence. Setting them, seeing them, understanding them, crossing them. We have to set boundaries in what we do, what we learn, where we live, how we interact, how we identify to make sense of ourselves and those around us. Executive, legislature, judiciary create and police them. Arguments flow from them.

So I reckon, if you aren’t going to hurt anyone by doing so, transgressing boundaries every day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep is good for you and good for humanity. No need to bother in your sleep. Your dreams and sub-conscious are already on the case.

That then is the only explanation I have for scuttling off to see Icebreaker perform at Kings Place. For this is music well beyond my normal boundaries. Icebreaker are an 11 piece contemporary music group founded by James Poke and John Godfrey in 1989. They combine guitars, electric strings, keyboards, pan-pipes, flutes, saxes, drums and various percussion; not your run of the mill instrumentation so no surprise that they have had a fair few pieces written especially for them. They aim to appeal to contemporary classical, rock and alternative music audience camps alike. There you go. Crossing boundaries. I have poked my nose into the first camp and like the perfume, I once lived in the second camp but left in the mid 1980s and don’t really know how the neighbourhood has changed since then and I have never visited the final camp and don’t really even know what they look like there.

I am guessing that Icebreaker are content to make their music and play to a select. but engaged, audience in appropriately sized venues. Good on ’em and good on whoever supports them. On the strength concert of this I will have to pay attention to them and the composers they showcased.

The concert was part of the year long Time Unwrapped Series at Kings Place which is examining the concept of time in music from all sort of angles. Many participants in the Series have argued that our perception of time is intimately bound up with music. Here were 5 pieces that were written in the last couple of decades, 3 for this very ensemble, which examine the concept of velocity in music, that is the rate of movement, think speed, compared to a fixed point of reference.

I had listened to the Louis Andriessen piece, called Velocity, de Snelhied in Dutch, before in its original form for three separate “orchestras” of unusual combinations, balanced through amplification. James Poke has arranged this for Icebreaker’s smaller forces retaining the structure. Mr Andriessen, there he is above, every inch the modern composer, is generally seen as a torchbearer for the minimalism that was kicked off in the US in the 1960s, and he was one of the key inspirations for the formation of Icebreaker. He was born into a family of composers and is a renowned teacher. The energy, pulse and rhythms of “classic” minimalism and jazz are audible in his music, as well as, who else, Stravinsky, but on top of this he lays big slabs of dissonant sound. It is really exciting stuff and he sounds like he had a lot of fun writing it. de Snelheid was a hit at the Proms given by the London Sinfonietta in 2012. A prom I missed because a) I am a dickhead and b) it was my birthday. Ligeti, Xenakis, Berio, Cage and Harvey in addition to Mr Andriessen were on the roster. Wow.

You would have thought I would have learnt my lesson. Oh no. Same thing last year when I missed the performance of Andriessen’s Workers Union, alongside pieces from the triumvirate of Bang on a Can composers, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang. Yes, dear reader, two of the very same composers who appeared in this programme. Small world, eh? Which it sort of is really, but it does seem that when composers such as Louis Andriessen are served up to a bigger and wider audience, of boundary breakers, positive surprise ensues, as at the Proms.

Now de Snelhied was apparently inspired when LA was driving with mates in Italy, listening to Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky and someone asks how fast they would have to go to go as fast as the music. Now this seemingly dumbass question is actually quite profound. Like LD saying the other day that she “couldn’t remember her first memory”. Whilst LD has a history of inadvertent hilarity, this actually points up that memory is constructed in the present and not “recorded” in our brains at the time of passing. Which is why it is fallible and plastic. Similarly LA realised that musical speed, like velocity itself, could only be measured, like velocity, by reference to a fixed point.

The piece kicks off with a steady pulse on two woodblocks around which the rest of the ensemble adds various repeated motifs. The woodblock pulse however speeds up at intervals, to close at 4x the pace it started out, (trust me this is very fast). This drags other instruments into accelerating except for one stubborn percussionist on bass drum and tom-toms who bashes out the same infrequent pulse throughout. The underlying chords too remain slow throughout. It is a weird aural sensation initially, but once you adjust to what is going on, you can hear what LA was up to; the tempo is not defined by the speed of the pulse but by the harmonic rhythm. I get it.

The other pieces similarly mess about with the notion of time, or more specifically, velocity in music. Anna Meredith’s Nautilus, here arranged for Icebreaker, introduces a slow strident drumbeat against a rising, skittery brass fanfare, both drawn from the electronic dance music which is Ms Meredith’s other vocation. By the end it becomes impossible to work out if this is a slow piece with a fast overlay or the other way round.

Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare divides the ensemble into three groups, one playing a basic semiquaver pulse, the other two playing respectively in 3:2 and 4:3 against this pulse. There is a beat of sorts in each group, but if you switch between them it gets a bit disorientating. Prof. Paul Whitty, (well named in this context as he is sort of taking the p*ss), has taken this very piece and “deconstructed it” by asking each player to take the notes on each of the pages of their scores and play them in order from highest to lowest. Three of the musicians also chuck in mp3 recordings, unsynchronised, which they may try to translate on their own instruments. The idea is that the timbre, note durations, dynamics and harmony remain the same as in Mr Gordon’s piece but in a disordered, ghostly way. I can grasp the idea but found it difficult to relate the two pieces but it was “fun” trying.

David Lang’s piece does exactly what it says on the tin, or should that be the can. It is 24 minutes of very, very slow note progression, which swirls about and feels very different depending on whether you try to focus your ears on the big picture architecture of the piece or the little details. It does test the patience, no doubt about that, but is it intriguing and has a kind of imposing grandeur. The compositional equivalent of a unified theory of everything, marrying the cosmic with the atomic. Try it.

So there you have it. Icebreaker took me to places I would never otherwise visit and I am very grateful to them for doing so. They delivered a thrilling performance, musically if not visually, as, with all the gubbins on stage, it look more like a studio jamming session than a “gig” despite a bit of coloured lighting. Icebreaker recorded the Gordon, Land and Andriessen pieces as long ago as 1994 so I think it is fair to say they know their way around them. Which is as well I think they are fiendishly difficult to pull off, not because of the notes or technique, but because the person right next to you is off playing something in a completely different time.

So take a tip from the Tourist. Break one of your self imposed cultural boundaries. Hate the theatre? Go and see King Lear, ideally in a language foreign to you. Love Mozart? Listen to some grindcore, though be wary of the lyrical extremes. Enjoy all that Tate Modern has to offer? Explore a cathedral. Canterbury, Ely or Wells would be my first choices. Ed Sheeran popping up too often on your Spotify? Try Neil Young. And so on.

What have you got to lose? Other than a couple of hours of your life. Being miserable. Still YOLO.