Two points need making at the outset. One is that the projected visuals, while rarely detracting from the music being played, only rarely enhanced it. The other is that the amplification employed over the course of the event, while never distorting what was being heard, tended to give the music a coarse, hollow quality which cannot have borne much relation to the sound produced by the musicians. Both issues need addressing if such events are to evolve positively. An incidental point was the use of four sections (out of a total of seven) from Dutilleux's string quartet Ainsi la nuit (1977) as interludes between pieces; this was to the detriment of the work (which needs to be heard as an entity); the sterling efforts of the four players, drawn from the London Sinfonietta, went largely unnoticed.
The London Sinfonietta strings standing stage-left opened proceedings with the chamber (and now the only composer-approved) version of Ligeti's Ramifications (1968) attentively shaped by Martyn Brabbins so that the diaphanous central section stood out against the hectic bundles of figuration on either side. Appreciable contrast came with the ondes martenot sextet keyboards and speakers eye-catchingly arrayed stage-right in an excerpt from Messiaen's La Fête des belles eaux (1936). What would now be termed an ambient score comes from his phase of intensive involvement with the instrument, and though there is a sense of the composer testing its technical capabilities rather than creating a fully autonomous piece (though much of its substance was later reworked in Quatour pour le fin du temps), the music is personal enough to warrant re-hearing. The other avant-garde revival (some contradiction!) was Penderecki's Capriccio for oboe and strings (1967), among the pithiest and most characterful statements from his 15 years of Modernism played with relish by Gareth Hulse.
All three pieces are likely favourites of Jonny Greenwood, and it was at his suggestion that members of The Nazareth Orchestra a co-denominational outfit which performs and encourages awareness of Arabic art music participated and who evoked an intense atmosphere in the elaborate Arab 'standard' Enta Omri (You are my life), its intricate texture and motion enhanced by alluring vocals from Lubna Salame. Lighter in tone and more modest in duration, the dance-like Tuta provided an opportunity for both Nazareth and Sinfonietta musicians to come together which they did to scintillating effect.
Greenwood's contribution was as diverting as might be expected from the composer of the score to the 2002 film Bodysong. The first half featured the premiere of Piano for Children: on the one hand, a 'prelude and toccata' in which Dvořákian-sounding piano chords twice gave way to athletic microtonal passagework; on the other, a gauche but likeable scenic evocation such as Peter Sellers might have turned into a sketch of distinctly offbeat humour. More could have been of the interplay between soloist and ensemble, but the central point if such it was was engagingly made. After the interval came Smear literally interpreted in the 'sliding-scale' interaction between two ondes martenots and ensemble, while exploring the material's harmonic and rhythmic possibilities with no mean resource. Greenwood's tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra takes effect this month and, on the basis of what was heard here, his work with the Orchestra is awaited with interest.
For the present, Greenwood remains best known as guitarist with the rock-band Radiohead, and it was reworkings of two of its numbers that rounded off the evening. Arpeggi provided a mesmeric backdrop for the plangent vocals of lead-singer Thom Yorke, who arrived on the platform as if on a whim. Having found the groove, he seemed more relaxed in Where Bluebirds Fly in which Greenwood (now playing ondes martenot) and everyone involved earlier joined in a Zappa-like fusion which, if at all anarchic, was entertainingly so. The South Bank will presumably not see an Ether concert on this scale for at least two years, and such is the appeal of the event that it will undoubtedly be missed.
- Repeated 28 March at 7.30
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