United Kingdom Sally Beamish: Red Note Ensemble [Ruth Morley (flute), Marie Lloyd (clarinet), Jacqueline Shave (violin0, Robert Irvine (cello) Tom Hunter (percussion), Huw Watkins (piano), Crawford Logan (actor), Cheltenham Music Festival, Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 16.7.2016. (RJ)
Beamish: Commedia; Piobaireachd for piano trio; The Sins
The Sally Beamish Showcase transported the audience from Italy to the Malvern Hills by way of Scotland to demonstrate the different facets of this Scottish composer’s art.
In the first work a typical commedia dell’ arte play is enacted with musical instruments rather than actors. The violin represents Pierrot, the cello Harlequin, the flute Columbine, and so on. The play opens with Harlequin ill in bed attended by the doctor, represented by the piano. The doctor chases Harlequin with a syringe and Harlequin unexpectedly gives birth. Pulcinella attempts to seduce Columbine and, unsuccessful in his amorous attempts, abducts the baby instead, leading to another chase. To cut a long story short Pulcinella at the end gets his just deserts and is marched off to the scaffold. The plot may be a lot of nonsense but it makes for entertaining musical nonsense, and there were plenty of good moments – in the chase scenes and when Pierrot comforts Columbine, for instance. Red Note Ensemble played with relish sounding similar to the ensembles Brecht and Weill used in their early collaborations.
Sally Beamish is interested in ancient classical music for the bagpipe (or pibroch, to give it its English spelling) and her Piano Trio is a set of variations on a slow pibroch theme (or ground). Traditionally the variations would use a simple paraphrase of the melody laced with increasingly elaborate ornamentation, but Beamish has also resorted to more contemporary methods of variation, such as separating the ornament and melody into separate keys. This was all very interesting, but to an untrained Sassanach ear it seemed a long way from the traditional lilt of the bagpipe.
A distinctly moral tone prevailed in the second half with Crawford Logan as Piers Plowman enacting the Seven Deadly Sins in a new translation by Phil Hand who has added three extra ones: pollution, drug addiction and causing poverty. The work starts with Logan coming on stage in medieval garb speaking Langland’s original language, with a piccolo playing off-stage. He throws off his cloak and begins speaking in modern English. As his vision of the sins unfolds the other musicians assemble on stage, the first being the flute and clarinet in a dance depicting Avarice. Envy is accompanied by a pizzicato cello and flute. In Gluttony Logan devours a bag of crisps and empties out a sack of empty beer cans, after which he cleverly enacts a bedtime romp for Lechery. Representing Sloth he brutally sizes the violinist’s chair, lies down and starts snoring. With each transformation he becomes ever more loathsome as he moves on to depict Pride, and his boorish realization of Anger has a witty musical accompaniment that includes plenty of percussion. The consumerist, throwaway society is also depicted, as well as drug addition, “the grandchild of avarice”. His attitude to treatment of the poor is summed up in the repeated words “Like it or loathe it; that’s the way things work”.
With its words and music reinforcing a singularly bleak view of the world The Sins is a damning indictment of modern society, so it is quite a relief when the magnificent Crawford Logan awakes from his dream, becomes Piers Plowman again and strolls off back into the more enlightened (perhaps) Middle Ages to the sound of the piccolo. This is a disturbing work which gives the audience plenty tof food for thought.