Omaggio Berio – Lunchtime concerts & Sequenza 1

22 April

Quattro canzoni popolari
My Man’s Gone Now [World premiere]
But Not For Me [World premiere]
I Got Rhythm [World premiere]
Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit
Le grand lustucru
Surabaya Johnny

23 April

Opus Number Zoo
Wind Quintet [world premiere]

23 April – “Sequenza 1 Concert”

Sequenza I – flute
Sequenza II – harp
Sequenza III – voice
Sequenza V – trombone
Sequenza VI – viola
Sequenza VII – oboe
Sequenza IXa – clarinet
On The Move [World premiere]
String Quartet [World premiere]

Royal Academy of Music students:

Brass Quintet [Heidi Sutcliffe & Ross Brown (trumpets), Motoaki Yoshino (horn), Matthew Harrison (trombone) & Daniel Trodden (tuba)] – Call

Maria Kontra (soprano) & John Reid (piano) – Quattro canzoni popolari

Meshell Dillon (mezzo-soprano), Helen Thomas (mezzo-soprano) & Alma Ferovic (mezzo-soprano) – Gershwin

Jennifer Hepburn (mezzo-soprano) – Weill

Naoko Miyamoto (violin), Amy Fawcett (viola), Rachael Tobin (cello), Josie Ellis (double bass), Rachel Peres Tetreault (flute), Zoe Chapman (flute/piccolo), Emma Cox & Jemma Bausor (oboes), Daniel Sanford-Casey & Laura Gordon (clarinets), James Fussey & Freddie Bols (trumpets), David Valdes Fernandez (vibraphone), Kazuko Osada (percussion), Milos Jovanic (accordion), Sam Chapman (guitar)
Robert Tuohy (Gershwin)
Osamu Matsuura (Weill)

Omega Quintet [Paul Skinner (flute), Lauren Weavers (oboe), Susie Evans (clarinet), Christopher Cooper (bassoon), Ruth Mulvey (horn)] – Opus Number Zoo & Herrington

Oliver Coates, Rachael Tobin, So-Jung Lee, Jonathan Cottle, Alexander Holladay, Benjamin Trigg, Ken Ichinose, Sarah Westley (cellos) – Korot

Pippa Goss & Jennifer Bacon (sopranos)
Naomi Shephard, Jayne Evans & Louise Haynes (clarinets)
Philip Sheppard – Agnus

[NB Artists for Linea, for two pianos and percussion, not credited]

Denis Bouriakov (flute)

Celine Saout (harp)

Katherine Bond (voice)

Andrew Connington (trombone)

Isabel Pereira (viola)

Alvaro Vega (oboe)

Andrew Harper (clarinet)

Mio Kabayashi (violin), Ken Ichinose (cello) & Chiho Tsubakawa (piano) – On The Move

Artea Quartet [Thomas Gould & Rhys Watkins (violins), Benjamin Roskams (viola) & Ashok Klouda (cello)] – Venables’s String Quartet

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 23 April, 2004
Venue: Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

These three concerts were given by students at the Royal Academy of Music as part of what was intended to be a celebration, devised with Berio’s considerable input during his last months. His death turned the occasion into a festival of homage – to this simple, complex, dangerous, difficult, witty, eclectic and, sometimes, very moving composer.

The world premieres fell into two groups: a clutch of three arrangements of Gershwin songs in the first concert and three more formal chamber works spread over the remaining two. Each Gershwin song was set for a chamber ensemble, drawn from some 16 players. Dominique Girod’s arrangement of “My Man’s Gone Now” gave us a supple, jaunty rhythmic backdrop to the vocal line that sometimes sat uneasily with the emotional intensity of the original. I greatly enjoyed the springy clarity of Rachael Tobin’s cello and Josie Ellis’s double bass. John Douglas Templeton’s arrangement of “But Not For Me” was rather less distinctive. Regarding “I Got Rhythm”, in Bob Broadley’s own succinct words, his arrangement “don’t got rhythm”. Hence, to meet the demands of his skilled musical joke, Alma Ferovic had to moderate Gershwin’s gutsy, swinging melody to fit a refined accompaniment that sat nearer to Satie than Broadway – and yet, in its perversity, accorded Gershwin great respect.

I responded positively to Brian Herrington’s Wind Quintet. Flute and oboe were antiphonally front-stage on opposite sides while clarinet, horn and bassoon stood behind, centre-stage, several steps higher. Flute and oboe gave a commentary hinting at the folk idiom of the American South, with darker resonance coming from the bassoon, clarinet and horn. This was indeed homage to Berio – from another voice, clear and individual.

I was less impressed by Oliver Weeks’s On The Move or Philip Venables’s String Quartet. On The Move opened in stark, opaque clangour and finished in a sort of weightless marshmallow – a formulaic juxtaposition of the thrusting and the thrust-less. Venables’s String Quartet was a stern and accomplished essay in uncompromising non-ingratiating – a bleak homage to Bartók, perhaps. (I much preferred Venables’s Broken, black heard in October 2003. This nodded brightly towards Berio and showed a delightful, underlying wit. I surmise that deadly seriousness is not Venables’s forte.)

Now to Berio – vocal works first.

The first lunchtime event offered Quattro canzoni popolari (also heard from different performers that evening at the Italian Institute) and three Weill arrangements. Maria Kontra and Jennifer Hepburn sang with pleasing and robust accomplishment. The attack and virtuosity of Kontra’s last song was formidable and exhilarating. In the very first phrases of the “Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit” Hepburn’s voice rang out to the manner born – silky and sardonic, lyrical and resonant. Her command of Weill’s idiom and sung German was riveting.

Berio’s arrangements were effective, precisely because they were minimal and simple, striking yet modest – and conceived in service to the original melody.

At the second lunchtime recital, we heard Agnus. This work refers to children in a susurration of innocent voices mingling with plaint from three clarinets. The performance was very moving – pure, distant (ethereally so) and timeless. Auden’s words for Britten to set (Hymn to St Cecilia) came to mind:

O dear white children casual as birds.
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small besides their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did…

On the previous day, the first non-vocal, non-Sequenza piece was Call – in effect, a fanfare. The playing rang out exuberantly – resplendent and confident. Berio had sonic surprises in store. I was much taken with a gentle undulation from the horn – unusually conceived, and smoothly and faultlessly played.

Opus Number Zoo is in serenade mode – laid-back and skittish, played delightfully. As was Linea at the concert’s close. Korot, scored for eight cellos, was dutiful and dull – yet played with no less dedication. Berio seems to have responded more alertly to things blown or banged rather than scraped.

Lastly, I heard seven Sequenzas – one each for flute, harp, voice, trombone, viola, oboe, and clarinet. These items are fiendishly difficult showpieces that test both performer and instrument to their utmost limits. Here is a professional challenge offered with a quizzical sense of humour, as if asking: “Are you up to playing this? Can you name anything more difficult for your instrument?”

Each item was played with dedication and expertise. I must conclude, therefore, that my differing reactions mostly relate to variations of quality in the writing. Two were spectacular – those for voice (also heard at the Italian Institute) and trombone.

Berio treats the voice like an instrument; Katherine Bond’s virtuosity was astonishing; he treats the trombone more genially – though no less demandingly – as a human voice capable of articulating richly and ripely everything except words; Andrew Connington’s plummy, rasping gusto was infectious.

The woodwind items were full of notes tumbling excitedly one after another. The clarinet was warm and silken; the oboe an agitated and mostly shrill obbligato to an offstage electronic drone, and the flute rather inconsequential – as was the harp, the most anodyne of the seven.

Least successful was the Sequenza for viola – no fault of Isabel Pereira who played this unsmiling piece with vigorous and grim dedication. The writing is uninspired and formulaic – brutally thick and abrasive for the most part, with double-stopping and triple-stopping gratingly aplenty, yet reaching eventually the rather perfunctory add-on of some elegiac moments on single strings.

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