Glass Harmonicas and Devil Automatons in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Berio, Woolrich, Mozart-Beamish, Cashian: New London Chamber Ensemble – Robert Manasse (flute), Melanie Ragge (oboe), Neyire Ashworth (clarinet), Stephen Stirling (horn), Matthew Taylor (bassoon); Cashian Quintet: Kathie Axelson (flute), Eric Wolf-Gordon (oboe), Michaela-Daisy Evans (clarinet), Florian Hunzinker (horn), Natalie Field (bassoon) / Meyrick Alexander (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 9.10.2012 (GPu)

Berio: Opus Number Zoo
Woolrich: A Book of Studies for Wind Quintet, Book I
Mozart-Beamish: Adagio (and Variations)
: Settala’s Machine (world premiere)

This engaging lunchtime concert by the New London Chamber Ensemble (supplemented by the Cashian Quintet for the premiere of a new work by Philip Cashian) began and ended in Italy (in one way or another). Or, to put it another way, it began with some Tom-and-Jerry-esque animal antics and ended with an automated devil.

Berio’s delightful (and delightfully titled) Opus Number Zoo was written in 1951, soon after he had completed his degree in composition in Milan. Each of its four movements tells a story – the first about a ‘Barn Dance’ and the second about ‘The Fawn’, while the third recounts the adventures of ‘The Grey Mouse’ and the last presents the ‘Tom Cats’.  Berio’s (English) text was prepared by Rhoda Levine, librettist and children’s author, and I believe that at the first performance she served as a narrator. It seems to have become the norm since then to distribute the words amongst the musicians (something done, for example, on the excellent recording by the Galliard Ensemble). The New London Chamber Ensemble divide up the words of the piece, but add a further dimension by choreographing their performance, moving on and off the stage, using their instruments as props (a bassoon makes a plausible hunting gun in ‘The Fawn’) and making the instrumental battle between the Tom Cats of the last piece a physical confrontation as well as a musical one. Berio’s music is an inventive delight and Levine’s words are witty and (especially in ‘The Fawn’) thought-provoking. The Ensemble were assured in their playing of the piece and (largely) persuasive as ‘actors’; the whole makes an inviting opening to a concert.

Book I of John Woolwrich’s Studies for Wind Quintet took us into a rather different world, even if some of them are not without their own wit. These six pieces do what it says on the label – their titles run as follows: ‘Monody with Minor Seconds’, ‘Chorale’, ‘Aria with Oboe’, ‘Clockwork Chorale’, ‘Decorated Chorale’, ‘Monody with Minor Seventh’. All six have their distinctive characters, so that the first is full of rapidly shifting textures, the second slower and more meditative, etc. The lovely ‘Aria’, in which the oboe (with Melanie Ragge impressive) sings above the other four instruments, is perhaps the most wholly satisfying of the six studies, but all have their merits, and all were played with precision and commitment. The only complaint one might make is that the sheer brevity of these pieces means that, tantalisingly, one hears a greater number of interesting ideas than Woolrich chooses to develop.

Woolrich’s fourth study, his ‘Clockwork Chorale’, set up something of a motif for the remainder of the concert. For me the undoubted musical highlight of the programme was Sally Beamish’s version of Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica (K.356). It opens with an arrangement (which was, I believe, commissioned by this Ensemble) which captures all the remarkable dignity and beauty of the original and this is followed by a set of variations which are led in turn by the different instruments of the quintet and which are things of beauty and of fascinating workmanship in their own right. The subtlety and clarity of Beamish’s writing here is a joy, and the interpretation we heard was utterly compelling.

More obviously ‘mechanical’ was another commission by the New London Chamber Ensemble – getting its premiere at this concert – Settala’s Machine by Philip Cashian, for the performance of which the Ensemble was joined by a specially assembled Cashian Quintet, and the whole company was conducted by Meyrick Alexander. The work’s title refers to one of the inventions of the Italian Manfredo Settala (1600-1680) a collector and inventor of automatons. One of these was his devil machine (which can be seen online at Cashian explains that this automaton (still on display in Milan) when wound up rolled its eyes, twirled its horns, stuck its tongue out and emitted smoke from its nose and ears. Cashian’s music, with its emphatic ‘clockwork’ rhythm (which slowly grinds to a halt as the spring exhausts itself) incorporates images of such explosive events in an appropriately automatic fashion, with phrases ‘mechanically’ transferred from instrument to instrument. The effect is initially intriguing but the work eventually left one wondering whether the concept (and its implied musical idiom) didn’t finally become something of a trap for Cashian, generating an over-deterministic idiom that finally palled before the work was over. It was good, though, to get the chance to hear the first performance of this piece – as it was to see and hear the highly accomplished New London Chamber Ensemble.


Glyn Pursglove