Live Reviews: Up North! Avanti! Ensemble

Avanti! Ensemble, Project – Space Upstairs, December 2002. Alcorn — Making a Song and Dance (1989); Edlund — Cose ballano i cinghiali (2000); Wilson — Eat, Sleep, Empire (2002); Adderly — Triologue (1987 rev. 2002); Rasmussen...

Avanti! Ensemble, Project – Space Upstairs, December 2002. Alcorn — Making a Song and Dance (1989); Edlund — Cose ballano i cinghiali (2000); Wilson — Eat, Sleep, Empire (2002); Adderly — Triologue (1987 rev. 2002); Rasmussen — Mosaik Miniature (1999); Lindberg — Quintetto dell’estate (1979)

The Avanti! Ensemble is a well-established quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano originally set up nineteen years ago by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. It is now a group with an international reputation for excellent performances and recordings.

In this concert they seemed a well-oiled new music machine, with occasionally over-clinical perfection. This impression can mainly be ascribed not to their playing, however, which was expressive and entertaining, but to the combination of their precision and the super-dry acoustic of this space, that particularly saps string tone of any spirit. This is not a suitable chamber music venue, unless some electronic enhancement is used. The pieces used trio, quartet and quintet formations.

Michael Alcorn’s quartet relied to an extent on motoric rhythms, but kept up surface interest and built a sense of depth by a sparing use of cross-rhythms against the pulse unit. The use of textural and tempo change was very convincing, setting up mood and harmonic contrasts in a balanced way, with well-buried references to ‘The Lasses of Donaghadee’ bridging these shifts with a quasi-modal sense of line and (sometimes) harmony.

Mikael Edlund’s quartet was more polyrhythmic, but also deliberately cruder in gesture and harmony. To an extent there was a feeling of spinning out the notes with figuration, but mostly this was well disguised and not annoying. Some almost minimalist moments sat uncomfortably in the otherwise ‘conventional-avante-garde’ context, but this was all intended, the piece’s original performers ‘the peärls before swïne experience’ providing the impetus for needling music (not something I have a great need for). The harmony evolved from blackness to openness at times; one of the more engaging sides to this forced iconoclasm.

Ian Wilson used all five players in this piece commissioned specially for the Up North! festival. More even than the first piece, this exploited additive pulse principles. The use of many asymmetric rhythmic groupings with the players working in rhythmic unison made for an inevitable reminder of Gerald Barry’s music, and this was entertaining in a similar way. Textures shifted gear with changes of speed, timbre and register all co-ordinating. This makes for a kind of piece where it is difficult for the composer not to either over- or under-use melodic materials. Just once there was a feeling of going on too long, but directly after this the piece turned, signalling and delivering a very satisfying end. Ian Wilson’s other piece in this festival (his sixth string quartet) was in a very contrasting, quite expressionistic style. His work these days intentionally explores new sound-worlds in each piece.

Michael Adderly’s trio piece went much further into the iconoclastic field than Edlund’s. This was very clearly music about playing with the listener’s expectations. Not needling but carving! So there were many non-sequiturs here. They worked for a first hearing, but I felt I would not want to hear them a second time. The piece drew from a wide selection along the simplicity-complexity palette, and some of the extremes of that selection were trite in effect. When in the middle of this range, there was plenty that was engaging. Adderly risks donning emperor’s new clothes, and achieves it much of the time.

Sunleif Rasmussen’s quartet suffered most from the acoustic, because the piece worked in a more traditionally expressive way that needs resonance. There was a curious mixture of quasi-modal thematicism/unity working against gestural and formal unpredictability. The insertion of audible folk-song and hymn into a contemporary harmonic setting is a thankless task for any composer, and mostly this aspect of the piece succeeded well. The formal lack of organisation was for me one challenge too many.

The Lindberg piece was for all five players; the piano seemed to be on the outside of the other four a lot of the time, as they all used single-pitch fade-ins and -outs to wring a lot of timbre-blends out of the limited resources. Sometimes the piano activity seems ‘stuck on’ to the texture which was really driven by the other four. This itself became part of a game at times, with stubborn repeated chords emphasising the piano’s inability to blend. There was a rhythmic-harmonic process of reduction of notes that governed the texture at times, but seemed insufficiently gradual in its handling here, dropping us all too suddenly into what felt like a style-shift towards minimalism. Some wild gestures that broke across these static moments showed the confident freedom for which Lindberg is renowned working better.

Published on 1 January 2003

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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