28 October 2016

64 strings

Last night saw the most Baltic filled of all the concerts of this year's GAIDA festival. And for me was the concert I waited for with most anticipation; admittedly this was mostly because of the three premieres anything could have happened, and the mix of composers involved I have a real soft spot for their work. The concert was extremely well attended, and had the extra zing of excitement due to the presence of LRT film crew. So lots of anticipation for this particular concert.

So to start off our string extravaganza was a glorious work by the Lithuanian behemoth, Julius Juzeliunas. The performance was a gesture of celebration of the composer's great work, and to mark his centenary which is nice very year. The work chosen to mark this momentous occasion was the composer's fourth quartet, or as it is nicknamed Raga keturiems (Raga a quattro). The quartet is a marvelous conversational work for quartet and rather wonderfully explores the harmonic potential of different ragas without it starting to sound like mere exoticism or cultural appropriation. Like all of Juzeliunas's works it is charming witty and elegantly crafted. His quartets are without a doubt, on par with the likes of Bartok, Janacek, and Schoenberg in regards to significance and brilliance. The performance of this work fell to the CHORDOS quartet, who sadly played it all rather flatly. All the character and nuance of the work ultimately disappeared because dynamic range was too small, very little conviction in the interpretation, and some of the simple gestures like moments of increased bow pressure felt clumsy or even uncomfortable for the group. It was a real shame indeed, I do hope other quartets adopt the work, so they can really hammer home the charm, wit, and brilliance of this quartet.

Next came the ArtVio and Ciurlionis quartet to show us what they could do, in the premiere of Zibuokle Martinaityte's new octet (or double string quartet) Sort Sol. This premiere I was particularly excited about as I have a real love of the work of Martinaityte. Ever since I heard her piece Completely Embraced by the Beauty of Emptiness I have found her work to be brilliantly constructed and full of a unique character and charm. The word Sort Sol is Danish for Black Sun; which is the name for the natural phenomenon where lots of birds fly in a huge dense flock. I was curious to see how this could be translated into a work for eight instruments. The work was well crafted, and the colours in the ensemble were beautiful. The harmony is very heavily focused around open fifths, but I couldn't quite tell if that was to fit with the black sun or to accommodate the fact fifths are the most common interval on string instruments. I was curious to see that Zibuokle herself had resigned herself to conduct the work, especially as in this performance it felt like the performers had stopped communicating as a group, and just stared at the composer. The other issue I had with the work was simply it owed too much to Juste Janulyte. There were too many similarities between Sort Sol and Elongations of Night by Juste Janulyte. Which ultimately is a shame as Zibuokle is a magnificent composer in her own right. I desperately and highly recommend everyone to visit her soundcloud, to hear her wonderful music. 

Then after some more shuffling came the second of the night's premieres. This came in the form of a dectet for two string quartets, accordion, and percussion by Ramunas Motiekaitis. All of you who read this blog, know how much admiration I have for the work of Motiekaitis, so to finally have the opportunity to hear it live was a real treat for me indeed. And I was only delighted with this piece. With the quiet flicker of the first notes I knew I was in to hear something magnificent. Like with many of Ramunas's pieces nothing is overstated, every sound has a purpose, an importance which is never pompous or to inflate his own ego, but merely a significance of 'this has to happen now, because it is happening now'. The elegance of the work thrives on the fact it never seeks attention, it merely exists; and throughout existence we the most beautiful elements of life never have to scream for attention, there merely are and with it are beautiful. 

After a large amount of shuffling came one of the leviathans of the night. Ruta Vitkauskatie's Nusviesti lygumai (Event Horizon) for four string quartets was one of the most talked about pieces leading up to the concert due to the sheer number of quartets involved. Admittedly this isn't the most amount of string quartets I have heard in relation to a piece for string quartet. Horatiu Radulescu's seminal fourth quartet is for nine quartets, he addressed the necessity of this gargantuan size through extreme use of scordatura, to create the sensation of an 128 stringed instrument. Ruta Vitkauskaite's work was not trying to compete with this outlandish work, but rather exploited the antiphonal potential in the space. This kind of idea is not a new one in music, Thomas Tallis and Gabrielli both exploited the potential of this within their sacred works, but this does not mean there isn't still life in the idea. The opening was joyful, mostly because it was the most overtly melodic piece I think I have ever heard from Ruta. The seamless passing of the melody was wonderful and had a real life to it. Sadly this joy was short lived, as 'extended techniques' were chucked into the mix and just didn't feel right in the piece. Maybe if, like in Radulescu's fourth, the work was an hour long she could have really explored all the ideas and made a really magical exploratory experience of it. But sadly it did not quite reach that point. 

After a much needed break, mostly to recover from a rather uncomfortable seat, we returned to be greeted by ArtVio performing Simon Steen-Anderson's Study for String Instruments No. 1. For those who don't know the magical work, this piece simply gives you what it says; Simon Steen-Anderson really is the ronseal of composition. The work simply explores articulation and musical gesturing within glissandi. The quartet surprised me. Mostly because I felt the sensation that they were intuitively built to play works of this magnitude. Contemporary music does divide performers, mostly because many performers are scared of making the 'wrong' interpretation, or merely not knowing how to interpret it at all. ArtVio really took the piece in their stride, and really showed they are a force to be reckoned with. Bloody well done. 

Following this, and lots of shuffling about, came Peteris Vasks's Viatore for string orchestra. Written in 2001 the work is very typical of Vasks's current sensibilities, with its rich harmonies and chorale-like textures. I really, really love this piece; so I was very excited at the opportunity of hearing it. I was delighted to see the 11 musicians were daring enough to perform the work without conductor, but sadly their bravery didn't deliver much to the piece. As Vasks's music is so open performing it without a clear idea of what you want to say in the piece is detrimental to the overall effect of the music. The music is still very pretty, but it is fare more powerful when performed with a powerful intent. This lack of intent was also apparent as dynamic differences were barely noticeable and interaction felt a bit limp. Thankfully performances of Vasks are a bit like pizza: good pizza is amazing and bad pizza is still pretty amazing. 

The finale came in the form of Gintaras Sodeika's Tettigonia perdida, Dada Concerto Grosso. The work for solo piano, solo cello, and strings is very typical of Sodeika. Cheeky, heavily jazz influenced, and rather optimistic. The soloists really tried to bring out lots of character in their parts, but despite their efforts issues like balance and rigidity ultimately ruined the effect. Because the ensemble weren't conducted, one of two things were going to happen. Either the soloists lead and interact with the group, dictating tempo changes and so forth; or everyone would become to fixated with their own parts and forget to interact. Sadly the latter was the result, and particularly in works heavily influenced by jazz, rigidity in the music ultimately makes the atmosphere feel laboured. Even though Sodeika's music has a lot of personal charm to it, the music needs fluidity otherwise it is somewhat akin to my youth playing 'swing' with brass bands; nothing ruins swing quite like a colliery band, and nothing ruins jazz like stagnant classical musicians. 

The highlights of the concert were without a doubt ArtVio's rendition of Simon Steen-Anderson and Ramunas Motiekaitis's premiere X Ciklai. More from them please!

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