Live@LICA Review: The Chroma Chamber Ensemble

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Contemporary classical music is either highly reactionary or incredibly inaccessible, discuss.

Well, some contemporary classical music can be perceived to be too clever for its own good, as the composer concentrates too much on the technical possibilities of instruments and composition. And some contemporary classical music can appear to be highly conservative, as if the composer was blissfully unaware of the last 100 odd years of music. However, some composers strike the right balance between innovation and tradition, and last Thursday, 3rd November 2011, I saw the Chroma Chamber Ensemble perform some extraordinary modern classical music live at Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts (LICA).

James Wooldridge, Marketing and Communications Manager at LICA, and the Associate Director of LICA, Fiona Sinclair, had invited The Chroma Chamber Ensemble to Lancaster not only to perform contemporary music and establish a relationship with Lancaster University but also to start a debate as to what is good current classical music and what is not – more of which later. I however, was not particularly interested in this debate that evening and just wanted to enjoy good music. I was not disappointed.

The ensemble (a slightly unusual combination of flute, clarinets, harp, violins, viola, cello, double bass, percussion and oboe which reminded me of 17th Century orchestras) first performed Chroma-commissioned Dhyana by Marcus Barcham-Stevens with Christopher Austin as the conductor and Joanna Songi as the soprano singer. This cycle of songs loosely based on Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Chinese poetry from the 8th Century was slightly demanding but incredibly rewarding to listen to. My favourite songs were the second, fourth and fifth and by the end of the cycle, I was convinced that I was listening to a Stravinsky suite with vocals – and you can’t get better that that! Indeed, Barcham-Stevens composition was a huge improvement on Mahler’s Teutonic kitsch fest (it’s true! Late Romantic music is the fag end of 19th Century music) and Chroma delivered the goods with both finesse and panache. Although all the musicians were outstanding, it should be noted that Steve Gibson’s percussive contributions reflected the solemn Taoist origins of the songs and that Songi has an excellent voice that flew high above the tightly-knit performance of the orchestra.

David Bruce’s Eye of Night was the second piece of the evening and performed by Helen Sharp on harp, Carmen Flors on viola and Sarah O’Flynn on flute. Despite the composer introducing the piece with some extraneous waffle about his composition (Chroma are a motherfucking great ensemble, but somebody really needs to have a word with them about PR and presentation), these four nocturnes were a exceedingly playful piece of music with Baroque overtones. Gentle and delightful, Eye of Night is part of a fine tradition of using European folk melodies as the source for a piece of classical music. In addition, the interplay between the three players was exceptionally skilful, and the emphasis on the harp reminded me occasionally of Alan Stivell at his most subtle. A true delight, Chroma’s rendition of Eye of Night was sheer poetry.

After the interval, Bolton boy Simon Holt tickled my musical clitoris with his Shadow Realm (a great title taken from a poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger). A piece performed by Stuart King (the musical director of Chroma) on clarinet, the bewitching Clare O’Connell on cello and the mesmerising Sharp on harp, the insidious incantations of the dark side of being that was Shadow Realm reminded me somewhat of Elgar, but unlike Dhyana’s superiority to Mahler, Shadow Realm seemed to be a homage to the more delicate work of Elgar. I should perhaps note though that Holt isn’t an Elgar clone – he is more like to Elgar as to what Beethoven is to Haydn. But that is all irrelevant really, for if you were to ask me to recommend an example of good modern music, I would suggest Simon Holt’s Shadow Realm as an introduction.

The final piece of the evening was another David Bruce composition called The North Wind Was A Woman (No shit? I thought it was a movement of air!). The entire ensemble was present along with conductor Christopher Austin, soprano singer Joanna Songi and Avi Avital on mandolin. Now, I may have previously mentioned a debate that is raging as to what is good current classical music and what is not. In addition, I have been slightly immoderate in praise of Chroma and the pieces they performed. And this is why: Chroma are great professional musicians performing great pieces of contemporary music. Barcham-Stevens, Holt and Bruce are fine composers, but…

The North Wind Was A Woman could have been my favourite piece of the evening. What David Bruce had composed for mandolin was… brilliant! I have deep respect for anyone who treats neglected instruments like the mandolin with love and affection (incidentally Avital knows how to play the mandolin – which was such a joy!), the interplay between the wind instruments, mandolin and harp was truly a delight, the fourth song swung energetically – and I mean “Boy, did it swing! Dig that crazy jive!” – the final piece was incredibly rich in texture and Joanna Songi’s voice soared high above like a swallow in action and… the lyrics were so naff. And I hate myself for saying that, because David Bruce the composer is great and the music of The North Wind Was A Woman is amazing – but the lyrics (written by Bruce and Alasdair Middleton) were faintly ridiculous and somewhat ruined a perfectly perfect piece.

So apart from Bruce’s lyrics, it was all in all a wonderful evening, although sadly the hall was virtually empty (why don’t more students go to such affairs?), and I would say that the Chroma Ensemble is a lady that I would want to take out for a meal and then make love to all night long. In addition, Simon Holt, Marcus Barcham-Stevens and David Bruce are truly fine composers – just drop the lyric writing, Dave.

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