This was a rather dispiriting and incoherent concert that was only enlivened right at the end, with Gerald Barry's incomparably aerated Feldman's Sixpenny Editions.
Before that we were treated to something of a ragtag of music: limpid, succulent early serial Berio channelling James Joyce in impressionist nature mode (Chamber Music, a setting of three poems from the eponymous collection) was followed by charming but incongruous kora music from Tunde Jegede, was followed by the exhausted refinements of Per Nørgård's Harp Concerto, was followed by conductor Tom Adès' own weak essay in colour The Origin of the Harp and some more kora, with the aforementioned Barry finally bringing things to a conclusion.
To expand on the opening: The concert was dispiriting both in its incoherence and its music. The incoherence was largely courtesy of the inclusion of the kora music. It is true that the kora, a large West African bridge harp of the most ringing efflorescence, could be seen to tie the concert together, with all the gesturing towards the harp as a central thread (with the exception of the Barry), but this fact doesn't account for the starkness of the musical distance between the harp as used by Jegede, and its use in the music of Adès and Nørgård. Organological correspondence is not enough; Jegede's lush and yet emotionally restrained playing simply jarred in the context of Adès and Nørgård's arid modernism. The programme felt stumbling and ill-thought-through. And, incidentally, why did the kora music get no programme note? Even if it was essentially improvised, you can't expect this audience to be fully cognisant of griot musical practices. In the end the kora elements of the programme seemed a bit of a hasty afterthought, even if they were at the same time amongst the most musically rich.
The other element of dispiritation came with the music of Adès and Nørgård. Both pieces felt derivative, boring, tired; redundant, even. Nørgård's spends twenty minutes trying to draw dramatic tension and dynamic richness from graceless chamber orchestrations and unexciting tonal chromaticism, whilst the Adè s lacked in even the most basic qualities of elegance and mystery. Adès' Harp always felt excessively sure of itself, even when it was exhibiting the cheapest exoticism in its inaudible use of thumb piano and its mundane use of rainstick.
The performances were fine, though Adè s' leadership leans a little too heavily on cheap dramatics, and in the Nørgård the soloist, Helen Tunstall, was perfunctory at best, repeatedly showing indifference to shape and being downright careless in attack. In nine short minutes Berio had displayed a deftness of colour and depth of compositional clarity that was almost entirely absent from the Nørgård and the Adès.
Which leaves the Barry. Feldman's Sixpenny Editions, for chamber orchestra with Huw Watkins featuring prominently on piano and celeste, commemorates the trash heritage of the music scores that were sold under the rubric of the title, scores that consisted largely of popular tunes or of tacky and irreverent arrangements of classical tunes (Barry's wonderful programme note sees him relishing their dullness).
Without ever straying into the distancing, ironising dangers of postmodern pastiche, Barry's short twenty minute cycle skips through various styles, from bland rounds, to martial, quasi-medieval fanfares, to popular dances, to a bewilderingly uncanny cluster merry-go-round on the piano, always with a clear affection for style and a sharp and inventive intelligence of craft that elevates the cycle to unexpected heights. Even beyond the question of craft, it is fair to say that the music is impressive simply for its joy, for its bubbly insistence on the profundity of farce and on the wisdom of the carnivalesque. Though I would have liked to have heard the piece a little earlier in the programme, its exuberant wit, its infectious life (oh so precious in this context), and its deceptively skilful execution at least brought the concert to a enjoyable conclusion.
Adès and the London Sinfonietta were as impressive in the Barry as the four musicians performing the Berio had been (though singer Alison Bell's voice, clarion and expressive at first, felt a little unsure in the monotony and then the Sprechstimme of the latter songs) earlier: alert and sharp, alive to humour and spark, and idiomatically fluent and dynamically adaptive.
This was a poor concert, then, that was at least rounded by glory.
Photo: Gerald Barry by Betty Freeman
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