United Kingdom Vale of Glamorgan Festival  – Cardiff, 20 & 21.5.2019. (PCG)
Noyes, Wilson-Dickson: Odyssey Piano Trio. Tŷ Cerdd Studio, Millennium Centre.
Brian Noyes – Piano Trio ‘…in the spirit of Ave Maris Stella’
Andrew Wilson-Dickson – Piano Trio No. 2 ‘Rapunzel’s Dream’
Sandbox Percussion with Astrid the Street Organ: Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian Rosenbaum, Terry Sweeney (percussionists), Francis Stapleton (street organ operator), St David’s Hall.
Jason Treuting – Extremes
Charles Peck – Synthetic twin
Steve Reich – Mallet Quartet
Andy Akiho – Pillar IV
Viet Cuong – Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine
Ben Wallace – Dr. Thadeus Arturus Reginald Theobald Trufflebottom Esq. Jr. III’s Miracle Elixir for the Common Cold
Following the success of their Composer’ Spotlight series of recitals last year, Composers of Wales featured the work of two further contemporary Welsh composers in an evening event at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. The two composers involved not only presented their works but talked about the process of their writing in interviews with Deborah Keyser. As Andrew Wilson-Dickson correctly noted in his wry and pointed observations, Rapunzel is one of the more sympathetic characters in the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales. She is mild-mannered if not painfully naïve, and her streak of malevolence is no greater than that manifested by any of Bertie Wooster’s would-be fiancées. In Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s hands, however, Rapunzel’s dreams are darker and more doom-laden. Some elements of almost jagged violence are interspersed with a recurring refrain of ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair’ which is succeeded by a series of gentle downward glissandi from all the instruments. The score looks in some places rather like one of those written in the 1960s and 1970s (and much imitated since, with less originality) where the majority of the actual composition was assigned to the performers to improvise on the basis of instructions either in words or graphic formulations. But the appearance would be deceptive, since the composer has in fact been very precise about exactly what it is that he expects his players to do, and the improvisatory elements are carefully circumscribed. The almost impressionistic textures were at times extremely beautiful, not least when in the final bars silences of increasing length separated the strands of the music.
By comparison, the piano trio by Brian Noyes, which preceded it, was extremely precisely notated at all points, as befitted a score which was written ‘in the spirit of Ave Maria Stella’. This is a reference to the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s 1975 string sextet on the same thematic material. Reviewing a recording of the Maxwell Davies work, Arnold Whitall in the Gramophone described the music as ‘challenging’. The same observation might justifiably be applied to Brian Noyes’s writing. Etiolated string harmonics at the beginning are progressively undermined by piano figurations, which gradually extend themselves into the string parts and forge ahead in increasingly complex contrapuntal textures. Some of the ‘artificial’ harmonics produced the inevitable ‘buzz’ that can accompany such techniques (noticeable in the resonant acoustic of the Tŷ Cerdd studio), but the conception was well maintained. And at the end, just as the music appeared to be settling into a conclusion in C sharp, the composer suddenly wrenches the key back to its home base of D with the strings and piano combining with a sense of hard-won triumph. In the central section, the elaborate counterpoint and syncopation needed the contribution of Robert Fokkens, not so much to conduct the players as to provide a metrical focus around which they could deliver their lines with expressiveness. Sarah Trickey was a tower of strength in the passages where she was required to soar high above the stave for extended periods of structural ornamentation. Rosie Bliss, cellist with the orchestra of Welsh National Opera, and Robin Green on piano, blended well in the textural contrasts both here and in Wilson-Dickson’s work.
The following evening, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival returned to Cardiff’s St David’s Hall for a concert of music presented by the American percussion quartet Sandbox. This concert concluded their series of events given at various locations during the previous days, including a presentation for schools earlier the same morning. One can only admire the sheer stamina of the players in the performance of such frequently demanding music. In fact, none of the pieces presented here were at all conventional in their treatment of the percussion (if such an approach can ever be described as ‘conventional’). The exception was Andy Akiho’s Pillar IV. It utilised the familiar patterns of cross-rhythms and forceful ostinato in a piece which was full of virtuosity but which perhaps emphasised style over content. At the same time, we were informed that the movement we heard was only part of a more extensive composition to be premièred next year. It may well be that this ‘pillar’ may sound very different in the context of a more substantial – and contrasted – work. Again, we were told that Jason Treuting’s Extremes was but one movement of an evening-length piece entitled Imaginary City. The four minutes we heard here, with all four players clustered around a single bass drum, may well not have been representative of the whole.
Even more experimental was Charles Peck’s Synthetic Twin. It is scored for two electronic instruments called ‘rooks’ which were built specifically for the piece, using infra-red sensors to respond to hand movements from the four players. The theremin-like result, while not really percussive in the understood sense of the word, was weirdly fascinating. The hand movements assumed almost choreographic overtones, although it was odd to see that these sometimes produced wildly different results from what seemed to be identical movements. In another extension of percussion techniques, Viet Cuong’s Water, Wine, Brandy, Wine confined the players to a quartet of wine-glasses. They were clinked together in various chordal combinations (an effect that seemed to fuse handbells with the atmosphere of oriental temples). The players then produced a whole series of extraordinary effects, beginning with the time-honoured technique of rubbing moistened fingers round the rim of the glasses (and other locations on the stem). The result was oddly hypnotic, in some way like ‘new age music’ intended to aid meditation, but at the same producing even more other-worldly overtones. By comparison, Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet scored for the relatively conventional forces of two vibraphones and two bass marimbas seemed straightforward, although the composer’s miraculous ability to conjure up apparently continuous legato lines from the rapid reiteration of notes across two instruments – almost a Reich trademark – was well in evidence. Reich’s style has shown signs of increasing complexity over the years; this score written ten years ago was perhaps more convincing in this regard than his orchestral score Music for ensemble and orchestra which had been given its Welsh première earlier in the Festival.
The evening concluded with the first performance of a Festival commission in the shape of a new piece by Ben Wallace entitled (take a deep breath) Dr. Thadeus Arturus Reginald Theobald Trufflebottom Esq. Jr. III’s Miracle Elixir for the Common Cold. (I will refer to it henceforth as Doctor Thadeus.) This new score featured not only the Sandbox percussionists but also Astrid the street organ, employed earlier in the Festival (review click here). In Doctor Thadeus, Ben Wallace combined the chirpy instrument with an amusing and inventive score. The percussionists were treated almost as concerned mother birds fostering a cuckoo chick that had inadvertently strayed into their nest, and was continually threatening to stage a mechanical breakdown that would derail the whole performance. The music itself fell into three sections. The two fast outer ragtime movements (combining Ravel and Joplin in an unholy sort of alliance) framed a central waltz with a rising scale in the form of a bass line which continually necessitated adjustments in key and pitch. The end of the piece was typical: the Joplin-like ragtime rhythms and melodies became increasingly agitated in both organ and percussion, only to be abruptly halted by a loud and rather rude noise from one of the organ pedals which brought simultaneous laughter and applause from the audience. One would hate to think that this work would be condemned to never being heard again because of the peculiar (and, one would imagine, unique) circumstances of its original combination of instruments. Perhaps it might find a new existence in a more conventional orchestral form. Even so, it is hard to imagine what the composer could do to replicate situations such as the purely theatrical moment when one of the percussionists walked over to the organ and hit it in an attempt to get it to behave – an effect enhanced by the decoration of the instrument itself, crouching at the back of the stage with what looked like a slightly malevolent grin. As an encore, Ben Wallace joined the percussionists on stage for a further exploration of ragtime, in which he proved himself to be more than competent as a marimba player in his own right. By the way, it was never explained what the title of Doctor Thadeus had to do with the music we were hearing; I suspect (and perhaps hope) that any such connection was non-existent.
The last two concerts which I will be reviewing from this year’s Festival return us to the much more conventional form of the string quartet with recitals by the Armida Quartet – although both concerts include works which also involve pre-recorded tape – and yet another world première in the shape of Robert Fokkens’s flutterings, splintering, becomings.
Paul Corfield Godfrey