Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways and for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences and memories from the past. The most frustrating and patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland and Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint and simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focussed lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin and cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work and second première: Gavin Higgins‘ The Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after and inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical and nostalgic weight.
Concerts: you plan in advance, do some research, read up on the various performers, composers and pieces you’re going to be hearing—and then out comes The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble and it’s all instantly forgotten; suddenly you’re a 10-year old again, listening to Switched-On Bach in your bedroom on a battered old vinyl record. Comprising 10 players and an amazing collection of analogue synths (which, collectively, must today border on the priceless), this was an altogether more playful relationship with the past. Formed by Gregory nine years ago, the ensemble established their credentials with an outstanding rendition of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, a rendition that mirrored the style and irreverence of Wendy Carlos’ classic version from 1968. Has counterpoint ever been such unfettered fun as this? It was followed by a stirring arrangement (by ensemble member Vyvian Hope-Scott) of part of John Carpenter’s score to his movie Escape From New York; together with a performance of Burt Bacharach’s classic South American Getaway (from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the possibility for technology to re-create and re-vivify the past was stated with exhilarating certainty. Will Gregory’s outlook, though, is more than just sentimental; another ensemble member, Eddie Parker, contributed a new work, Ocean of Heaven, that drew heavily on ambient influences in its waves and washes of colour, and Gregory himself connected all ten synths together for his Carry on Noise Box, an insanely infectious rhythmic maelstrom using only noise generators. The concert’s second half was filled with a large-scale work including film, The Service of Tim Henman. The work’s episodes feature clips from matches where Henman’s movement is magnified through the use of ultra slow motion. What was interesting about this was the way the ensemble’s often heavily articulated music (most of it dominated by a driving pulse) seem to tease out activity, tension and emotion from the infinitessimal progression of movement. The episode where Henman actually serves was by far the most exciting, Gregory opting for less strictured, more textural material that built a frenzy of anticipation as Henman’s racquet slowly approached the ball. There were moments when one couldn’t help feeling there was something gently parodic in this long-form piece, but this was repeatedly trumped by the relentless enthusiasm brought to bear on it all; Gregory’s love and understanding of synthesizers clearly goes very deep indeed, and anyone who might have imagined synths as cold and aloof machines would have been overwhelmingly converted by the gorgeously idiosyncratic warmth conveyed throughout the concert. It was an unequivocal delight.
Sunday afternoon brought the first performance of Nicola LeFanu‘s Tokaido Road, a music-theatre work two years in the making. Founded upon a libretto by poet Nancy Gaffield, it too emerges from a relationship with the past, here articulated via a journey through memories encapsulated in the famous woodblock prints of Japanese artist Hiroshige, who is also the work’s protagonist. Memories are fallible and narrators often unreliable, so the employment of these images—projected at the back of the stage—as a crutch to reminiscence was a clever and effective device, the aged Hiroshige then projecting himself back into their respective narratives, drenched in a barely-suppressed wistfulness (conveyed superbly by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams). Accompanying the action were the modest forces of Okeanos, a chamber group who mix eastern and western instruments, on this occasion comprising oboe, clarinet, violin, cello, koto and sho. Despite the presence of those last two instruments, so instantly evocative of place and tradition, LeFanu staunchly avoided pastiche. The work had been preceded by traditional Japanese music, useful as a means of contextualisation but, in hindsight, something of a gauntlet thrown down to LeFanu. Her response managed not only to reconcile east and west but also to convey simultaneously both propriety and passion. Hiroshige’s longing to revisit and relive the past—replete with pleasure and pain in equal amounts—was palpable; yet this felt like a fundamentally ordered act of anecdote, the slightly hard-edged nature of LeFanu’s music echoing some of the spare writing with which Britten furnished his church parables. Gaffield’s text, no doubt informed by the immediacy of Japanese poetry, cuts out all superfluities, and LeFanu’s music did the same. It never became outright ritualistic, but the work’s presentation—cushions and banners, subdued lighting, back-projected images, the ensemble at one side—didn’t feel that removed from a kind of stylised temple setup. What this provided most, though, was the kind of safe space needed for LeFanu’s introspective drama to play out; reminiscence, regardless whether the memories are good or bad, is invariably painful in some way, and, although cathartic, there was an omnipresent sense of melancholy. It’s not often one experiences a piece on this scale that’s so emphatically intimate throughout. Everything about the work, from its soundworld to its modus operandi, takes some getting used to, but the combined effect is of a delicate and rather beautiful honesty. One of the closing scenes, where the character of Mariko sang to her baby while the koto made soft sounds akin to a western harp, was just one of many such exquisite moments. It may all be in the mind of an old man from a far-off land, but the stuff of memories at the heart of Tokaido Road is something to which we can all very intimately relate.