A concert full of pleasant surprises with Sean Shibe and Sinfonia Cymru something like their very best

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Sean Shibe (acoustic and electric guitars), Sinfonia Cymru. Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 25.2.2024. (GPu)

Sean Shibe © Kaupo Kikkas

Steve ReichDuet
Laura SnowdenInto the Light
Julia WolfeReeling
Pamela Z. – Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances
Judd GreensteinChange
Freya Waley-CohenAmulet for Guitar
Philip Glass (arr. David John Roche)Truman Suite (world premiere)
Jonny Greenwood – Themes from There Will Be Blood
David John Roche – Chorus in Alto (world premiere)

Though I was keen to hear/see Sean Shibe live, I didn’t find the advance publicity for this concert particularly enticing. The explained that it would ‘combine Sean Shibe’s innovative and award-winning electric and acoustic guitar skills with recorded sounds and film projection.’ Though I am a devotee of the acoustic guitar, I am not a great lover of the electric guitar (unless it be in the hands of a select company of jazz guitarists, such as Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, Jimmy Raney and Pat Metheny) and since I have not, on the whole, derived much pleasure from such mixed-media concerts/events as I have attended, I wondered whether this was really a concert for me but I am happy I was there, since I found much of interest in it.

The programme was described as a ‘mix of music from composers living and working in the UK and the USA’. It began with Duet by Steve Reich, written in 1993 and dedicated, as Reich has written, ‘to Yehudi Menuhin and to those ideals of international understanding which Sir Yehudi has practised throughout his life’. Shibe shared the stage with two violinists from Sinfonia Cymru and a few lower strings from the orchestra. The violinists were Haim Choi and Maria Ismini Anastasiadou. Haim Choi, leader of Sinfonia Cymru is an outstanding young musician of great promise, technically assured and a vibrant presence on stage who ‘dances’ her music as beautifully as she plays it. Anastaiadou was also very impressive in a piece which is not without its difficulties, in its many subtle variations of rhythmic patterns and tightly written canons.

It would be impractical to attempt to discuss, however briefly, all the other eight works which followed and so no silent aspersions are intended and I will simply limit my comments to those pieces I found most interesting, on what were largely first hearings.

I found Laura Snowden’s Into the Light (composed in 2021 for the series Nature Unwrapped at King’s Place in London) beautiful and captivating. I was only able to read Snowden’s programme note after I had heard the work. At the time of hearing it I ‘understood’ it as a fable of a movement out of darkness towards light, a movement that might have been spiritual or psychological. When, later, I read the composer’s note on the piece I found that my interpretation was both wrong and right. Snowden (herself a guitarist) writes that the piece was ‘inspired by bird migrations. The first section has a sense of trepidation and danger as the birds embark on their journey. The middle section is a moment of rest – a bird is injured – and the end of the piece drives towards the light as the birds fly off high into the sky. The story of the piece can equally be taken more metaphorically!’.

These two opening pieces were played by ‘live’ musicians only. In the next two works we heard both live musicians and pre-recorded sound. Julia Wolfe’s Reeling is scored for clarinet, electric guitar, percussion, pre-recorded vocal, and double bass. The composer’s own programme note is valuable: ‘For my field recording I’ve used a fantastic clip of a French Canadian singer. He’s an older man and he sings a very beautiful kind of music that’s basically the music that you make when you don’t have a fiddler and you don’t have a banjo. You just use your voice. You sing syllables in a sing-song twirly way. I started this project from a very pure place, just using his voice. And little by little I go from his world to my world, which is much more cacophonous and has a more urban sensibility’.  The movement is audibly clear, the ‘narrative’ of the work being very well delineated, as Wolfe’s own music gradually absorbs and then takes over from the anonymous singer. This is a quietly moving piece, which contains a personal narrative (Wolfe herself played a lot of folk music at one time) as well as enacting a recurrent event in the history of western music, when trained composers have ‘borrowed’, some would say ‘appropriated’ folk melodies and incorporated them in their own works. A few obvious examples would include – in no significant order – Chopin, Liszt, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Bartók and Kodály.

Pamela Z. is an American composer and artist working in a variety of media. Much of her music makes use of sampled sounds. That is very much the case in Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances, effectively a collage involving live music, played by a string quartet, and sampled sounds from an evening’s TV – commercials, news bulletins and much else, edited, repeated and juxtaposed. The composer’s programme provides a narrative of the piece, though I think it would be just as interesting, perhaps even more so, if listened to without such information; ‘Ethel would like to settle down and relax after a long day’s work and watch something she has recorded, but she’s so tired, that she drifts off before she’s even made it through the opening credits. She sleeps fitfully as mixed messages from her program, along with countless advertising breaks and news bulletins, infomercials and cultural programs scan forward and backwards across her closed eyelids and seep in through her vulnerable open ears.’ The piece is well-made and has a power of its own, quite independent of narrative explication such as this.

I found Freya Waley Cohen’s Amulet for Guitar utterly fascinating. A subtle, celebratory meditation on an (imagined) small object believed to have magical properties. Written for solo acoustic guitar, the composer tells us that ‘when writing this piece I imagined feeling an object in my hand, a little like how you’d hold a smooth pebble in your palm, and gradually turning it and seeing how the light hit it from different angles’. The musical materials of the piece are, indeed, considered from different points of view and presented in different and developing perspectives. Sean Shibe’s playing here was beautifully reflective and quietly elegant. The work was commissioned by Nightmusic for Shibe, who gave the premiere in Cardiff’s St. David’s Hall in September 2021.

An impressive close to the concert came with a new concerto, ‘Chorus in Alto’ by the Welsh composer David John Roche, commissioned by Sinfonia Cymru and Britten Sinfonia, and written with Shibe in mind. The soloist is required to play both acoustic and electric guitars in different movements. The work is in four short movements, well under twenty minutes in performance. The first movement is, in the composer’s own words (he was present and spoke briefly about the work) ‘heavy, overdriven and direct’. The second begins very quietly before growing in volume and intensity. The third movement (for acoustic guitar) is, to quote Roche again, ‘based around the classical guitar technique of tremolo, with the fast and precise movement of the player’s right hand creating a constant-sounding, expressive stream of notes’. The effect was delightful and intriguing. Shibe picked up his electric guitar again for the final movement, of which Roche says that it contains ‘a significant solo directly inspired by 1980s shred guitar – very intense – and the use of an electric guitar effect called tremolo (not to be confused with the classical guitar technique!)’. As one might expect from Roche’s mention of shred guitar there was much use of sweep-picked arpeggios, cascading harmonies and other extended techniques. The result was excitingly and rhythmically intense. Indeed, the rhythmic drive had most of the audience tapping a foot or involving themselves in the rhythm in some other way.

Shibe left the stage to considerable applause and then promptly returned to pick up his acoustic guitar and play, by way of encore, the sixth of Federico Mompou’s Cançons i danses. There must surely be few guitarists in the world who could switch, in a moment, from the shred guitar of rock to Mompou’s quietly lyrical music and play both of them altogether idiomatically and with equal conviction.

Interested readers might like to know that this concert was recorded by the BBC and is scheduled for broadcast by Radio 3 on April 9th.

Glyn Pursglove

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