Live Reviews: Horizons – Kevin Volans

NCH, Dublin, 31 January 2006 / Andrew Hamilton – Map; Volans – Cello Concerto; Stravinsky – Four Études for Orchestra; Volans – Strip-weave / RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra / Gavriel Lipkind, cello; Robert Houlihan, conductor

The composer featured in the Horizons 2006 concert of 31 January was Kevin Volans. The program was coherent; the individual items largely held the attention; the playing was excellent. Taken on its own terms, then, this was a perfectly normal concert. Why was it also an almost disconcerting experience?

Happily, we have been able to see more and more of Volans in recent years, as both composer and lecturer. Speaking before a Composers’ Choice concert in 2004, he described his own evolution as a composer. His period of study (and later as teaching assistant) with Stockhausen put him in the line of those serialist composers whose works are grounded in rigorous analysis and follow a strict internal logic. In time, the non-linear logic of African music (particularly where repetition and rhythm are concerned) was brought to bear on European compositional techniques. Volans was increasingly drawn to the ideas and music of the great American composer Morton Feldman, who discarded systems and worked intuitively. Some of Volans’ work for string quartet could be seen as a very fruitful dialogue with Feldman. Volans continued to respect his old mentor Stockhausen, but now as a poet of sound, for the intuitive musicality that underlay his systems.

For those familiar with this aspect of Volans’ history (and, in my own case, possibly ignorant of other parallel developments), it was intriguing, to say the least, to find that the whole program in this concert came under the sign of Stravinsky, though the only works of his played were two of the Four Études for Orchestra.

The first item on the programme, Andrew Hamilton’s Map, had been premiered at the RTÉ Living Music Festival 2002. As a relatively simple initial idea is developed at different speeds, and the patterns collide, the surface becomes increasingly dislocated. The piece seemed to have more impact on this occasion than at its premiere, but had it already made its point some time before it ended?

Volans tells us that the solo part for his Cello Concerto (1997; rev. 2005) was written without thought of what the orchestral part would be. The idea of the orchestra almost washing over the soloist was set aside (too much would have been drowned out) in favour of a more restrained orchestral presence that becomes increasingly aggressive as the work proceeds.

Playing from memory, Gavriel Lipkind presented this exciting and difficult music almost with the abandon of a nineteenth-century romantic soloist, while remaining in close rapport with conductor Robert Houlihan. In the orchestral part, it was as if segments of Stravinsky had been lifted from their original context and put in a musical mixer; instead of Stravinsky’s surging build-ups, we had a succession of shorter, abruptly terminating segments.

The closing item of the concert, Strip-weave, presented a rather similar soundworld (minus the soloist). I was left hoping that there would be another chance to hear these works, realising that my understanding of the composer needed revising.


Published on 1 March 2006

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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