Hebrides Ensemble, "American Pioneers", Queens Hall, Edinburgh 8 November 2011
So on Tuesday night I went to the Queen's Hall to see Will Conway, who is currently guesting as Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra's conductor, doing one of his day jobs, viz. leading the Hebrides ensemble in a programme of twentieth century American classics.
They began with Jennifer Higdon's Smash. I didn't know her or it prior to this concert, and I'd read a review which suggested it was pretty much a waste of time and out of place in this programme. OK, it's not a masterpiece but it was good fun and the ensemble played it well. It seems clear enough why they programmed it: it was the only piece in the evening where all five of the musicians came together, thus avoiding the unsatisfactory feeling that you've been watching a random assemblage of musicians.
Next up was John Adams' Road Movies for violin (Alexander Janiczek) and piano (Philip Moore). I like Adams a lot, but chamber music isn't really his strong point, and I thought this piece dragged rather, especially in its central movement. It seemed to be well played, though if Adams' notes on the piece are to be believed I would have expected more swing in the last movement. On the whole I enjoyed it less than the Higdon, though.
The pair were joined onstage by Will Conway on cello to perform Charles Ives' wonderful (and rarely heard) Piano Trio. A fairly early work, the trio is full of quotations from hymns and folk tunes. Its scherzo is subtitled "TSIAJ: This Scherzo Is A Joke", which is what scherzo means. It certainly is, with characteristic polytonality and all kinds of fun and games before a "ta-daa!" ending. The last movement is extremely lyrical and beautiful, culminating in a moving quotation from "Rock Of Ages". a lovely piece, and the Hebrides Ensemble are to be praised for unearthing it.
After the interval we moved forward in time. Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint required clarinettist Yann Ghiro to record ten overdubbed tracks of clarinet and bass clarinet, and then to add an eleventh line in live performance. It's a wonderful piece, and I would think making the recordings was far more taxing than playing the live part. Yann got completely into the music, though, and gave as wonderful a performance as I could imagine: real fun music-making, albeit with ten copies of himself. (BTW, the bass clarinet lines rock: this is one of those pieces that makes me wish I played the instrument.)
Finally, the main work of the evening was George Crumb's 1970s piece for flute, cello and piano The Voice of the Whale. It is a piece very much of its time: the players are required to wear masks, and perform bathed in blue light. It makes use of extended techniques: the flautist (Fiona Paterson) has to sing into her flute while playing it, the pianist strums the piano strings with a stick and damps them with cloths, and various players whistle. I read a review from earlier on the tour which described the lighting and masks as "unnecessary gimmicks". That's much too harsh: the piece is certainly of its time, but it was intended as a piece of performance art as well as of music. One might as well describe Nagg and Nell's dustbins in Beckett's Endgame, or Winnie's pile of sand in Happy Days, as unnecessary gimmicks: true in a sense, but missing the point. The music itself is a joy, probably Crumb's greatest achievement and deserving of more performances. (It's OK for me, I have the original recording on vinyl, but live stagings are as rare as hen's teeth.) All the performers are amplified, which led to a wee problem of feedback on three occasions at least which I spotted. I noticed the hum (round about D above middle C) and saw Will Conway's masked visage turn up towards the sound mixer each time. Methinks there is one sound man whose Christmas bonus just evaporated.....
A great evening, and one I really only attended on a whim. The power of word of mouth, and of the well-placed flyer. The ensemble is returning in March to give us Messaien's Quartet For The End Of Time, which on this showing will be in very safe musical hands indeed.