Opus Number Zoo and other stories

String Quartet
I fed my wardrobe to the night wind [world premiere of Revised Version] *
O King
Opus Number Zoo
Three Japanese Lyrics
Two Poems of Konstantin Bal’mont

Artea Quartet

Christina Sampson (soprano)


Louisa Dennehy (alto flute) *
Eliza Marshall (flute and alto flute)
Rosie Hillier (oboe)
Susi Evans (clarinet)
Stuart Russell (bassoon)
Emma Greenwood (horn)

Philip Venables (conductor)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 18 June, 2004
Venue: Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

This was my second hearing of the one-movement string quartet. I commend Philip Venables’s programme notes. He describes the opening viola melody as “striking, folkish” and “passionate” – epithets that did not come readily to my mind. I responded most to the latter part of the central section where stabbing Bartók-like chords broke into and across the melody’s most intense and silken appearance.

I much preferred his I fed my wardrobe to the night wind. Posthumously, Sylvia Plath inspired Venables to turn his seven-instrument original into an eleven-instrument piece, including a concertante alto flute. A sentence from The Bell Jar “mirrored the path” of his composition: “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were carried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.”

Venables’s writing has tonal variety and colour. The alto flute tellingly invoked this “melancholy, dark, still evening” – a mood of nocturnal unease quivering amidst starlit calm. After the Artea Quartet had played with admirable tension and restraint, Venables (in his second year at the RAM on the MMus course in composition) introduced the concert. He wished to surround his own compositions with music that had particularly influenced or stimulated him at the time of writing. He pointed to Berio’s fondness for projecting a melody linearly and on a single instrument, instancing the viola melody in his own quartet. In a delightful mutter, as if just to himself, he declared that the Stravinsky pieces are works of genius.

I regret that he did not refer to O Luther as a work of genius, too – especially considering the committed verve of Christina Sampson’s singing. Broken, jagged fragments of word and sound eventually pieced together to declare the name. Berio’s farewell to Martin Luther King was, to me, more greatly stirring than Stravinsky’s goodbyes to either Dylan Thomas or Aldous Huxley.

Opus Number Zoo was delightfully presented. Dressed as alley cats, these night creatures mingled amongst us – imps of the darkness who suddenly spoke a snatch of Rhoda Levine’s text or gave us a quick burst of Berio. Then they gathered together, huddling almost, up on the stage, continuing their discourse.

Christina Sampson returned to sing, mainly in Russian. This was brave of her and a step in the right direction. English words as translation would have suited the music ill. Russian words, despite a rather English lilt, were far preferable. Christina Sampson sang this enchanting but awkward music with valiant charm.

Credit must go, too, to Philip Venables. He vindicated his claim for Stravinsky’s genius, by subtly and unobtrusively pinpointing the musical variety in these accompaniments and the fine, precise ear that heard such differences while engaging in their composition. The prototype as regards performance was Pastorale – hackneyed and chocolate-box, usually. Venables just gently nudged me to hear the contrapuntal backing and marvel at its gentle diversity and musical acuity.

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