Planet Tree Music Festival – 9th November

Photograph of Tania Chen

John Cage
In a Landscape
Lou Harrison
New York Waltzes 1-3
Little Suite
Reel for Henry Cowell
Alan Hovhaness
Twelve Armenian Folk Songs, Op.43
Bare November Day, Op.210
Lake of Van Sonata, Op.175
Do You Remember the Last Silence, Op.152

9 November 2001, Conway Hall, London

“Lawrence Ball at 50”

10 November 2001, October Gallery, London

Tania Chen (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 November, 2001
Venue: Conway Hall and October Gallery, London

The second weekend of the fifth Planet Tree Music Festival began with a piano recital by Tania Chen, whose work at the experimental end of the new music spectrum has been attracting increasing attention. The programme was a thoughtful contrast of works by John Cage, Lou Harrison and Alan Hovhaness – whose death came just prior to his 90th birthday.

The Cage pieces are both choreographic studies from 1948, the year in which the seminal Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano saw completion. Working with the piano in its ’pure’ form, Cage wrote the most perfectly realised of his composed works. Dream, written for Merce Cunningham, assembles a melodic line from simple scalic fragments resonating into silence. Although it employs a wider range of pitches and a more varied rhythmic sense, In a Landscape, written for Louise Lippold, revolves around a plaintive cadence of deep simplicity. Chen’s immersion in this music survived even the obstacle of a recalcitrant heating system, an accompaniment Cage might have enjoyed!

The Harrison selection gave further glimpses of the protean stylistic range of a composer impossible to pigeonhole. The brooding Sarabande (1937) sounds like Berg’s Piano Sonata reconceived in serial terms; a striking contrast to the whimsical nostalgia of Three New York Waltzes (1945), and the playful archaisms of Little Suite (also 1945). Reel for Henry Cowell (1936/9) employs modal and chromatic figuration in either hand, while projecting the reel with ever-greater dynamic force – as much Grainger as Harrison, perhaps.

With a vast output encompassing some 67 symphonies, Alan Hovhaness is a composer likely to be absorbed by only a very few. That said, the popularity of his music for brief spells in the mid-1950s, early 1970s and early 1990s suggests that a wider interest, however passing, will always be there. Chen opened the second half of her recital with Twelve Armenian Folksongs (1943), winsome fragments evoking one side of the composer’s ancestry. Bare November Day (1964) consists of a pensive ’Prelude’ enlivened with stalking offbeat notes and a ’Hymn’ that is a poetic take on an easily stereotyped formula.

Only the second and third movements of the Lake of Van Sonata (1946/59) were played; the former’s sombre, asymmetrical melody line, and the latter’s dour, unrelenting modal pattern viewed Northern Turkish influences from a distinctive angle. Even more remarkable was Do You Remember the Last Silence (1957), Hovhaness’s response to Cage’s 4’33″, whose lengthy harmonic suspensions and protracted note durations evoked a Busonian richness of texture with all rhythmic tension smoothed away. A discovery played here with absolute concentration.

Although no encore had been planned, Chen repeated In a Landscape, now in something approaching ’ambient calm’, and a satisfying way to conclude this absorbing and persuasively interpreted recital.

Lawrence BallOn the following night, Planet Tree concluded with a 50th-birthday retrospective for Lawrence Ball – composer, improviser, audio-visual creator and founder and motivator of the Planet Tree Festival.

After an eloquent piano improvisation from Ball, Neil Davis played the second and fourth movements of Viola Suite No.2 (1990) and the second movement of Viola Suite No.1 (1982) – engaging studies in fragmentary but cohesive gestures. Brian Wright was adept in the rhythmic insistence of Violin Study No.4 (1997), before he, Marina Solarek, Amanda Chancellor and Abigail Trundle gave the world premiere of Blue String – its incisive rhythmic layering and modal colouring ideally suited to the quartet medium. Soprano Rosemary Forbes-Butler and oboist Althea Ifeka gave the premiere of a song to words by Joan Hudson-Gifford, Forever (1980 – is it just the medium that calls to mind Vaughan Williams’s plaintive Blake settings?), before an evocative treatment of Jeanine Miller’s Cathedral (1978) had the singer echoing into the resonant vistas of the piano strings. Two strikingly individual settings, among the highpoints of the evening.

Ball began the second half with a synthesiser improvisation employing the ’transmigration’ tuning developed by electro-acoustician Jacky Ligon – apparently derived from the sonic properties of the thumb piano, and a whimsical and amusing study in microtones. Solarek and Chancellor returned for the world premiere of Violin & Viola Study (1998), an exacting workout in sustained rhythmic co-ordination, then were joined by Ifeka (now on cor anglais) and Trundle for three further premieres of works all written this year. Soft Animations centred around a (too?) constant rhythmic figure, but the austere beauty of Coloured Gaps in Space and elegiac warmth of Woodberry confirmed that Ball shares with such composers as Howard Skempton and John White the ability to create emotional intensity through deft simplicity of means.

Ball himself closed the evening with a brief piano improvisation – inviting the audience to think about peace as he played. In its touching, artless quality, it summed up something of the essence of Planet Tree as a whole. Long may the festival flourish.

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