United Kingdom Ink Still Wet VI: Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble (Aisling Agnew [flute], David McCann [cello], Daniel Browell [piano], Sarah Watts [clarinet], Ciaran McCabe [violin]) /Sinead Hayes (conductor). Harty Room, Queen’s University, Belfast, 27.1.2023. (RB)
Sungji Hong – Estavrosan
Sam Kane – Alatha’s Ascension
Amy Rooney – In Modo di Martha
Matthew Dowie – Follow the Thread
David McCann – Reflexion
Aidan MacLean – Growth
Gráinne Mulvey – Strange Attractor
Ian Wilson – Marianas
In this concert the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble presented eight brand-new works, including three works commissioned from young composers at an early stage of their career.
The opening piece on the programme was a work entitled, Estavrosan by the distinguished Korean-American composer, Sungji Hong. The work takes its inspiration from a painting by Gerard David in the National Gallery in London showing the crucifixion of Christ. The opening cluster chords on piano alternated with scales on the clarinet, powerful sounds on the flute and eerie harmonics on the strings. Notwithstanding the modernist harmonies and textures, the work seemed tinged with jazz and South American musical influences. Powerful hammer strokes permeated the work, underlining the savagery of the crucifixion, culminating in shocking discords and rapid figurations from the strings towards the end of the piece. It was a highly engaging, enjoyable work and a good piece with which to open the concert.
Sam Kane is a gifted violinist who won the Northern Ireland Young Musician of the Year competition in 2017. He is also emerging as a talented young composer and his piece Three Northern Landscapes won a Classic FM Platinum Performance Award. His piece, Alatha’s Ascension is inspired by Irish mythology: the eponymous Elatha of the title was described as a beautiful prince of darkness. The work is scored for violin, cello and flute. This gorgeous piece used conventional harmonies and soulful Celtic melodies. In the opening section, fragments of melody emerged from blended harmonies in the strings. Each of the three instruments took up the melodic line at various points and the accompanying textures were nicely varied. Violinist Ciaran McCabe produced some impressive double stopping and there was excellent interplay between all three instruments. This was a beautifully atmospheric piece which had an immediate appeal.
Amy Rooney is a Northern Irish composer who collaborates regularly with Hard Rain. Her In Modo di Martha is for solo flute and it was specifically written for Aisling Agnew. The work was inspired by a Walt Whitman poem which describes how a child is moulded by their surroundings and experiences. Agnew’s performance of the work was highly impressive. She was constantly inventive in the way she shaped the increasingly elaborate melodic lines and displayed an impressive range of dynamics and tone colours. Having said that, I was not completely convinced by this piece, and it did not win me over in quite the same way as some of the other works on the programme.
Matthew Dowie is active as a performer on acoustic and electric guitars in a variety of different styles. The opening material of Follow the Thread was written on the guitar. The rhythmic material is inspired by Indian Classical music and the character of the piece is influenced by thrash metal which is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal music. The work was scored for flute, violin and cello. The angular opening theme was announced in unison, and this was followed up with a series of highly inventive variations. All three performers brought rhythmic vitality and edginess to the work. Sinead Hayes did an excellent job characterising the evolving material and coaxing unusual sonorities from the instrumentalists.
The resident cellist of the Hard Rain ensemble, David McCann, is also active as a composer and he has written several works for solo cello. His new work for solo cello, Reflexion, is about the honest and sometimes painful process of self-reflection. McCann’s performance was nothing less than a virtuoso tour de force. He seemed completely absorbed in the music and played with enormous freedom and flair. He conjured up extraordinary dark sonorities from the lower register of the instrument towards the end of the piece.
Aidan MacLean is a young composer who has written several successful choral works. He also has a background in rock and jazz and won the Jazzlife Alliance’s Young Composer Award. His new work, Growth was described in the programme as featuring growth across all musical parameters. It is scored for flute and cello and was nicely balanced across both instruments. Aisling Agnew and David McCann gave a committed performance, but I was not entirely convinced by this piece as it came across as a little formal and academic.
The last two works on the programme moved into the realm of the avant-garde and featured two composers who collaborate regularly with Hard Rain. Gráinne Mulvey’s Strange Attractor depicted the phenomenon where random outcomes can lead to discernible patterns. The work is scored for flute, bass clarinet and piano and all three instrumentalists did a magnificent job conjuring up the extraordinary sounds and musical effects demanded by Mulvey. Sinead Hayes kept a tight grip on the reins and expertly moulded the musical material. This was in a many ways a dramatic and compelling piece and I liked it very much.
The final work on the programme was Ian Wilson’s Marianas inspired by the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. All five instrumentalists participated in this work, although Sarah Watts on this occasion performed on a contrabass clarinet. In the programme notes Wilson explained that he specifically wanted to write something for this instrument and he and Watts used it to create an extraordinary alien soundscape. The other instrumentalists depicted life in this environment using unusual percussion instruments (including seed pod shakers) while Daniel Browell played directly on the strings of the piano to create eerie effects. Once again this was a highly evocative and imaginative piece.
Overall, the concert featured inspired playing from the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble and it put some important new works on the map.