Live Reviews: Vox 21

Vox 21Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, Dublin 2, 23rd January 2003Dwyer – Quasi una fantasia Boulez – Dérive I Carroll – Three Chunky Lumps Deane – March oubliée / Catacombs / Seachanges (with Danse Macabre) Mostly Modern...

Vox 21
Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, Dublin 2, 23rd January 2003
Dwyer – Quasi una fantasia
Boulez – Dérive I
Carroll – Three Chunky Lumps
Deane – March oubliée / Catacombs / Seachanges (with Danse Macabre)

Mostly Modern and Vox21 dedicated this concert to Raymond Deane as a celebration of his 50th birthday. The second half of the concert was a rare opportunity (and as it turned out, a rare treat) to hear three separate Deane works that happen to form a loose trilogy – the ‘Macabre Trilogy’. They are all themed on death in a humorous and perhaps ambivalent way, and they do it in such diverse ways that there is no question of their being three movements of one larger work. Regarding the first half of the concert, it could be argued that in today’s new music it is practically a duty of programmers to avoid the impression that there is only one style, but the selection here was so diverse as to leave you wondering why they were presented in the same programme. However it might be related to the fact that this concert featured a Leaving Certificate set work, and so attracted many youngsters who could easily be at their first ever non-rock/pop concert.

Quasi una fantasia is a trio for violin, clarinet and piano. As an early work it shows influences from Hendrix and Britten (!). Apart from a few moments where there might have been subtler ways of developing material, this was a sturdy and captivating kind of music. Generally it was the slower sections that stood out, being a harbinger of what is best in Ben Dwyer’s more recent work, an ability to generate emotional intensity with a single development made up of material that has local as well as long-range musical integrity. There was a sense, just during the first section, that the performance lacked intensity, the rest was very involving. Leonie Curtin did a fine job in the lead role of solo violin.

The performance of Dérive I was extremely committed and accurate. Susan Doyle, Leonie Curtin and Márta Erdei in particular contributed to the clean and attractive shimmering tone-colours that the piece demands. The balance and blending of texture was well-managed, especially given the unhelpful acoustic conditions of the venue (added to by the large size of the audience!). The central section where the clarinet and piano shadow each other could have had a more suspenseful quality.

At this point in the programme a new item was inserted: Ben Dwyer and Mike Nielsen improvised a guitar duet. The piece was introduced as having no composer and no title, but not signposted as improvisation. It was for some of the students in the audience the best piece, I later discovered! It was like a rattling good conversation on everything and nothing translated into the language of contemporary music.

Three Chunky Lumps was for eight players plus tape, and the players all had earpieces giving them independent click tracks. This was a study in pointillist polyrhythm, and the rhythm was the most immediate and gripping aspect throughout. The pitch materials in the piece were cleverly limited to allow a sense of acoustic illusion take over the texture, a musical evocation of op-art. As expected, this work fell into three movements, but the first two had two fairly extensive sections each, while the third ended abruptly after a very short single section. In the first two ‘Lumps’ the second section tightened the grip of the pitch limitation as if to strangle development and quickly kill everything off. The electro-acoustic sounds were attractively retro, recalling the very earliest electronic music. They were also dovetailed nicely into the timbres of pizzicato strings at one point, which helped integrate them. This was immediate and enjoyable music, showing (once again) the vibrancy of the young composer scene here. However, its tendency to deliberately fall short of its own potential could perhaps wear thin on repeated listening.

Raymond Deane’s Macabre Trilogy presents, in spite of or because of its death theme, the more playful side of his music. There is a lighter feel here than in his pieces for bigger media. With the March oubliée, for violin, cello and piano, there is a funeral march atmosphere; the repetitive quality of the opening material gives the possibility of creating a polyphony of rates of development for the three players, which for a while becomes a surreal focus for the piece. Later sections fill out into rich, warm textures, while other thinner sections evoke the nervous rhythms of the centre of Stravinsky’s Danse sacrale (a fine death reference). The performers’ ensemble was excellent in these. This is music that plays around a bit with the norms of thematic music, but is also not afraid to use them simply. Catacombs, in contrast, goes much further into stretching these norms and is rarely formally simple. It opens quoting Mussorgsky’s Catacombs, but by the mangled fourth chord you know that this is also going to be a theatrical and ironic ride through the musical past. In fact in that sense this is a post-modern piece. It pulls in references to other parts of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, with an unstinting hardness of wit that could only be Raymond Deane. Again the performers seemed fully behind this piece, and I note that the four players (violin, cello, clarinet and piano) were conducted, a plus here since the piece was tight and dramatically handled. Seachanges is the Leaving Cert. set work, but is not by any means an easy piece. Continuing the principle of cruel distortions of thematic material that runs through the trilogy, this finds yet new ways of doing that, using extreme notes and brutal repetitions to mock the traditional concept of development, but countering this by following with the opposite: warm areas of pleasingly fat harmony and tone. This work usually comes across to me an as edgy piece that tests the co-ordination of the performers, and they can find the requirement of playing maracas as well as their usual instruments off-putting, but on this occasion that was one of the strongest aspects, all of them getting into the ‘mariachi’ mood.

Vox21 had a number of changes in its personnel for this concert, with the usual violinist, cellist and percussionist all replaced. This did not compromise the quality of performance; an indication that contemporary music is not as challenging to instrumentalists as is often assumed.

Published on 1 March 2003

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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