Jane O'Leary's Apart/Together

The Vanbrugh Quartet

Jane O'Leary's Apart/Together

A fly on the wall view of the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet's rehearsals for Jane O'Leary's new work Apart/Together.

I have written elsewhere (Classical Ireland, Issue 3, 1999) of the questions posed by readers to me as a music reviewer, and confessed to being baffled by much of what I hear. The more new music I hear, the more uncertain I become about enduring quality. Yet I am certain that more first-rate music is being composed today than ever before, simply because there is more music being created and the ratio of genius to the rest does not change that much.

Knowing how little I know, and having had the experience of familiarity bringing understanding and love of music that, at first, did not appeal, I asked Gregory Ellis whether the Vanbrugh would allow me sit in on rehearsals and a first performance of a new work that they were to premiere in the current season. Within a fortnight they had invited me to just such a venture — Jane O’Leary’s piano quintet Apart/Together in which American virtuoso Robert Taub was joining them. The work lasts about eight minutes and they had scheduled six hours rehearsal time over three days before the composer came for the final rehearsal and performance. I jumped at the invitation as this particular composer’s music had failed to attract me on any previous first acquaintance.

On arrival at Chris Marwood’s house I was given a score and a copy of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Tuft of Flowers’, lines from which provide the inspiration for the work — ‘Men work together — Whether they work together or apart’. My first sift through the 180 bars revealed what looked like very difficult rhythms to get accurately synchonised, just about a dozen bars without an instruction regarding dynamics or articulation and multiple changes of time signature. It was immediately evident that this was a colour piece in which the composer had precisely notated the sounds and effects she wanted and there was never going to be any doubt as to where the leading voice was located.

The players had had the music for some time and each came to this first run through thoroughly conversant with his own part. The object of this first meeting was to discover how the lines fitted together. Each player had, in preparation for the first rehearsal, marked cues from the score to aid in precise counting and day one was purely a familiarisation exercise. Bob spoke of sixteenth notes, but adapted to the British Isles convention of semiquavers, etc. The first non-technical comments were ‘It’s very concise and dense’ and ‘Yea, and the colours are very intense’. Long, held notes in the strings (Bars 35–40) led to a breakdown as they lost Bob, who has demisemi quintuplets and semiquaver septuplets — ‘If I listen to the piano left hand I can get the first beat accent in 42’. It takes an hour and a half to get to the end with frequent stops to analyse the nuts and bolts of simply playing the dots in time and in tune. The metronome is constantly consulted and finally, pity is taken on poor jet-lagged Bob.

Rehearsals on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday take place in the empty Aula Maxima, UCC, and the reverberant acoustic reveals colours more clearly. In the first 50 bars or so the piano is used essentially like a xylophone, with scarcely a chord. Beginning from a cluster around the note D the five instruments veer, through various precisely notated melismata, towards a definite sense of G-minor tonality. At bar 55 a link passage (new idea) brings us back to the now enlarged cluster and the piano is used more chordally, though still essentially percussively.

From here to the end the melismata are expanded or contracted into chords with much use of pizzicato, trills, alternating sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge) and normal bowing. Many held chords in upper strings allow rhythmic or melismatic details emerge from other voices and it becomes evident that, by the end, the apparently apart sounds are, by some magic part of a whole, together. A final flourish of the cluster, now around B flat, allows the music to float away peacefully. This, of course, is the end result of their careful preparation of the work.

I was fascinated on their total lack (in my presence) of any discussion of the WHAT of the music; it was all on the HOW of playing it. Over many years I have, with like-minded friends, explored the standard chamber music repertory and always someone has commented on the beauty, the effectiveness and the difficulty of various passages that strike them. We discuss balance, ensemble, harmonic and rhythmic detail — the WHAT of the music. The Vanbrugh did the same with the Brahms F minor piano quintet, but in Apart/Together there was no such discussion.

The players were insistent on following the composer’s instructions absolutely precisely so that the music could speak for itself. When Jane did get to hear the final rehearsal, all discussion was on colour and the metronome marking. The reason that there was such attention to the HOW is that Jane O’Leary makes much use of trills, pizzicato, harmonics, sul ponticello and sul tasto (bowing near the fingerboard), all of which alter the tone colours and they are insistent on getting it right. Quiet trills near the bridge at one point lead to the comment ‘Sounds vaguely Chinese here’ and all break down laughing when someone refers to a fortissimo trill on cello, sul ponticello, as ‘a nail scraping a piece of glass’ — so Chris tones down the volume. Keith has to change his bowhold in order to alternate tremolo and downward pizzicato. Simon changes his bowing in order to clarify rhythm and articulation.

All the talk is about realising the composer’s vision and when I question Jane, on the day of the performance, about a rhythmic detail that sounded finicky to my ear she shuts me up with ‘Well, that’s what I heard so I wrote it down.’ I would love to have heard her discussion on pedalling and colour with Bob, but I was too far away and have to admit that I was not aware of any great difference in how he played afterwards.

At the performance I put away my score and listened. The sounds were different in the full auditorium. The audience response was enthusiastic, not polite. Neither Jane nor the players were prepared to offer a final verdict on whether her concept had been successfully communicated. They would wait until two more performances had taken place. Where did this leave me? Honestly, I don’t know. The music intrigued rather than attracted me. It does, I believe, go beyond what words can say. It is, undoubtedly, a well-crafted, imaginative piece that will give pleasure to listeners with open minds. I cannot claim to have fallen in love with it, but my regard for its creator has increased. Where I had previously admired her craftsmanship I now appreciate her artistic vision also.

When, or if, the Vanbrugh are convinced of the musical value of Apart/Together they will keep it in their repertory. If they are not, they won’t. This, I suspect, is the only way in which new music can gain widespread acceptance, i.e. by being championed by respected performers. I know that this does not always work — think of Beecham’s championing Delius over Holst, Vaughan Williams and Walton — but it is probably our best way of finding out whether the Emperor is dressed!

Published on 1 July 2001

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