Conlon Nancarrow, arr. Yvar Mikhashoff
Study for Player Piano No. 6
Study for Player Piano No. 9
Jonathan Davies (bassoon) Clíodna Shanahan (toy piano) London Sinfonietta Geoffrey Paterson
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 1 September, 2020
Venue: Royal Albert Hall
Live Prom 5 brought back to the Royal Albert Hall stage one of the Proms’ contemporary stalwarts of the last 50 years, the London Sinfonietta. The Proms archive lists this as the ensemble’s 73rd appearance at the Proms since 1969 (it debuted with John Taverner’s The Whale at Prom 13 that year on 1 August). It actually hasn’t appeared on the Royal Albert Hall stage for seven years, having most recently featured both at the Cadogan Hall Proms Chamber Music series and, later still, as part of the Proms at… series at the Roundhouse.
In a typically invigorating and well-constructed programme, adroitly conducted by Proms debutant Geoffrey Paterson, there was a focus on American and British composers – the latter all born since the London Sinfonietta was founded; the New World contingent from a previous generation. Fashioned as a triptych, our young British contingent occupied the central panel, flanked by largely New York–centric opening and closing panels.
Old favourites (however belatedly the first had come to the Proms), Philip Glass and Steve Reich framed the musical arc, introduced from the stage on both Radio 3 and the iPlayer screening by Georgia Mann: Glass with an off cut from Godfrey Reggio’s 1981 film Koyaanisqatsi, Façades; and Reich with his much longer – and for much larger ensemble – urban landscape, City Life from the following decade.
Scored for five strings (two violins, viola, cello, double bass), Façades opens with a totemic Glass rocking arpeggio – beautifully matched with a slow visual circumnavigation of the Royal Albert Hall’s loggia boxes from a camera placed in the arena – to which Glass belatedly adds a pair of soprano saxophones, offering a haunting keening that meanders and intertwines in a way evoking a similar mood to that of Copland’s Quiet City that was heard at this address just five nights ago, at the first Live Prom. In his programme note, available online, Paul Griffiths referenced Quiet City in relation to the opening section (Check it out) of Reich’s City Life, for which the Albert Hall’s stage was positively teeming with players, including four keyboards, two sampling not only the snatches of New Yorkers’ speech but also street noises that the composer recorded close to his apartment. Although long-associated with the composer, this was the London Sinfonietta’s first performance of City Lights at the Proms (the only other performance, in the year of its composition, was given by Ensemble Modern under Peter Eötvös, on 7 September 1995).
The novelties in the line-up were, perhaps not serendipitously, the second and penultimate pieces. Julia Wolfe’s East Broadway, composed the year after City Life, dispensed of all that work’s instrumentation opting just for a toy piano and a boom box (technically ‘audio playback’), which underpinned the tinkling keys and repeated chords with a spluttering beat. Before Clíodna Shanahan ended the piece with a sequence of clusters by using her forearms to depress all the notes at once, Wolfe’s sound world evoked in my mind a high-mettled Gamelan heard through a crackly radio. Meanwhile, Anna Meredith’s Axeman turned Jonathan Davies’s bassoon (via live electronic sound manipulation) into a prolonged scream of heavy metal distortion, to which perhaps involuntarily Davies essayed some typical air guitar gesticulations. Perhaps not just for social distancing reasons, Davies had been placed at the top of the Arena Stalls, away from the stage for his three minutes of head banging and it was just as well he was not needed for City Life…
Following the inimitable quirky sounds from maverick Conlon Nancarrow in the Sixth and Ninth of his Studies for Player Piano as expertly arranged by Yvar Mikhashoff (the Sixth being remarkably mellow as a lazy and meandering oboe over halting accompaniment allows flute to join in, before clarinet and then piccolo take over), the first British representative was Tansy Davies. Her neon – first heard here at a Composer Portrait pre-concert in 2010 – is a ‘dirty funk’ septet for violin, cello, double bass, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, percussion and keyboard, with an arhythmic accompaniment lead by the striking of three large upturned tin cans (catering size, for baked beans, perhaps).
Like the Meredith, Nancarrow and Wolfe, receiving its proms debut performance, the other work on the bill was Edmund Finis’ exquisite in situ. Taking inspiration from the mirror sculptures by John McCracken, Finis has taken pieces by early, Renaissance and Baroque composers – Pérotin, Locke, Josquin des Prez, Brumel and Rameau – and refracted each one as if distorted by a mirror, scoring them for a nonet. It is infinitely subtle and gentle on the ear, hiding its workings in sheer beauty, perhaps best displayed in the third, based on Josquin des Prez, where the silky alto flute and clarinet seem to play music that is as liquid as the most delicious of melted chocolate. This marked Finis’ debut at the Proms. More please.
Finally, it was refreshing to hear after every piece a burst of applause from those performers not playing in that piece, and to see the ensemble stand and face front at the very end, for a camera that solely represented what should have been an arena full of prommers.