With an evening out in Soho, you never know what to expect. Sat in MeWe360 it was a surprisingly traditional urban setting. It is a ‘modern office’, but this space with its sofas, random chairs and a piano made a great setting for chamber music – a genre as old as music itself. It’s rare to be sitting on the floor listening to great contemporary music in such intimate surroundings and as Riot Ensemble‘s Artistic Director Aaron Holloway-Nahum introduced the evening we knew we were in for a great night.
The programme started with Felipe Lara‘s, “Livro dos Sonhos” (Book of Dreams) a song for clarinet with piano. Angular angry unisons began the piece which was full of timbral contrasts. Moments of diatonic melody spattered this sound world of harmonics, accents and frights with masterful clarinet control by clarinettist Harry Cameron-Penny. Adam Swayne on Piano played with precision and the pair play very well together.
Next up was the UK premiere of Marco Momi‘s ‘Reloading Vanishing’ for solo flute. Kate Walter played this so very engagingly. The piece calls for vocalisation, gasps, emotive outbursts as well as simultaneous flute playing. Walter’s character brought the piece alive. A Riot Ensemble trademark is to use other media in their work (see our previous review here). This evening they had a screen with information, most interestingly a preview of the score. Thus in ‘Reloading Vanishing’ it was intriguing to read the instruction ‘confidentially’ at the top of the score, getting a glimpse of the composer’s ‘intention’.*
Amy Beth Kirsten‘s ‘Speak to Me’ for pianist finished the first half, with Holloway-Nahum introducing Kirsten’s composition style as a ‘physical not intellectual’ activity. Swayne absolutely owned this piece – which is based on the myth of Echo, Narcissus and Juno – and eloquently (and helpfully) reminded the audience of the story. The music has three parts. Firstly Echo talking incessantly to distract Juno, her adulterous husband, secondly Juno cursing Echo and finally Echo frustrated that she can no longer speak. Kirsten is just a great writer. Her improvisational influences are so evident. The first section is great stream-of-consciousness for pianist in which Swayne both sings/speaks and plays. The cursing is dark and repetitive – a migraine of intensity of a curse and Swayne’s quite remarkable skill as an actor emerged as he spoke with harsh intensity. Finally when Echo is trapped and can no longer speak, the music recalls what was once spoken and Swayne (consciously or not) realised the pain on his face. Someone had taken away his power to speak. Echo tries to recall the music but can’t assert herself. This is an epic piece of music by Kirsten. The end is heartbreaking, a requiem for a voice that has been lost and a soul destroyed.
The second half opened with Augusta Read Thomas‘ ‘Capricci’ (Hummingbird Romance) a piece inspired by New Orleans jazz improvisation. It was a great dance for flute and clarinet and showed Thomas’ clear and intimate understanding of these instruments. This duet was great to observe. Cameron-Penny and Walter moved together as they played demonstrating flawless technique and great virtuosity. At moments the tonalities echoed Schoenberg just as he was beginning his 12-tone experimentation.
‘Invocation to Ate’ by Arne Gieshoff was next up, a piece focussing on obsession. Once more the range of the flute’s colours was superbly demonstrated by Walter’s excellent technique and performance.
The night finished with two trios, the first being Jose Manuel Serrano‘s ‘Espantajo de Resca’. Holloway-Nahum once more told the work’s story: music evoking the ghostly figures left on the sand and bark as the flood recedes from Serrano’s hometown. This piece is an echo of an image with haunting breezes of melody. Once again Swayne at the piano uses his voice in the work – but the eery sounds don’t add human reality to the work, rather they take it away, creating an even darker, beautiful sound. The rich sounds from Walter and Cameron-Penny developed Serrano’s world into a beautiful soundscape.
The evening’s title piece ‘The Riot’ by Jonathan Harvey finished the night, a work designed to show the (as Holloway-Nahum put it) ‘sheer virtuosity’ of the musicians and how it was ‘utterly clear how hard’ it is to play. This is a mayhem of a piece. Moments of utter diatonicism (cycle of fifths, major thirds) were interspersed with exclamation and madness. It’s actually great to hear a composer who’s not afraid to use even pulse and functional harmony every now and again – jazz influences too were clear.
It was a great concert with phenomenal music and well thought out programme. The setting was intimate and this made a big change to how the music was received: sitting comfortably with a drink in your hand is an inviting setting. It is a new (and yet so old) way to hear the music. Holloway-Nahum’s great insight into the composer’s ideas and thoughts (Harvey’s daughter Anna and Gieshoff himself were present too) made the music much more tangible and thought-provoking.
Check out the Riot Ensemble’s upcoming performances here. Well worth it for this breath of fresh contemporary musical air.
*there is no way on earth we are going to get into a discussion on the realisation of the composer’s intention and whether or not it is a valid idea. This is just a review. Hence the quotation marks. The end. ~BF