Ether 2005 – London Sinfonietta & Jonny Greenwood

La Fête des belles eaux (excerpt)
Ainsi la nuit – Miroir d’espace; Litanies; Nocturne; Litanies II
Piano for Children [World premiere]
Enta Omri
Smear [London premiere]
Arpeggi / Where Bluebirds Fly

Lubna Salame (voice)
Thom Yorke (vocals)
Jonny Greenwood (ondes martenot)
Gareth Hulse (oboe)
John Constable (piano)
Valérie Hartmann-Claverie / Bruno Perrault / Nathalie Forget / Fabienne Martin-Besnard / Nadia Ratsimandresy / Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire (ondes martenot sextet)

Members of The Nazareth Orchestra

Sound Intermedia (sound design)

London Sinfonietta
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Over the last few years, the South Bank’s “Ether” series has brought together differing aspects of modern musical culture. This year’s is the most varied yet and, if without the electronic barrage of Squarepusher or the superimposed vocal chaos of Jamie Liddell (to name two highlights from last year), presented a coherent programme that held the Radiohead-friendly audience in generally rapt attention: in contrast to the behaviour one often now encounters from ‘Classical’ listeners.

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 thancreating 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
  • Box Office: 0870 382 8000
  • Ether

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