Friday, 23 May 2014

More explorations - Exploring 50 years of Nonesuch records – part II

Jonny Greenwood
Jonny Greenwood
The Barbican Centre has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch records with a weekend long 'Exploration' of artists and composers, including Steve Reich, John Adams, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, Louis Andriessen and the Kronos Quartet, who have found a home with this champion of contemporary, experimental, world and new music.

I saw a concert performed by Kronos earlier in the week, reviewed here, celebrating both the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch and the 40th anniversary of Kronos and I went to two of the concerts on Sunday – Session 4 in the Guildhall's Milton Court, which you can find reviewed here, and Session 5 in the Barbican Hall. The evening concert – with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by André de Rider plus Jonny Greenwood and Jessica Rivera – was an altogether different affair than Session 4 - more serious classical composition and composition taking itself seriously.

The concert began with classically trained Jonny Greenwood (1971-), guitarist with Radiohead. Greenwood has been a composer in residence for the BBC since 2004 and has also written the music for six films including 'There will be blood' (2007). Greenwood bounced on stage, started his computer and played Steve Reich's (1936-) 'Electric counterpoint', without any preamble and with his back to half the audience. Every now again he stopped and wiped his face where his hair was tickling it.


'Electric counterpoint' was written in 1987 in two forms. One was for a live performance requiring 14 guitars and two bass guitars, the other, used for the first recording by Pat Metheny , allows the performer to pre-record the other tracks. In fact Pat Metheny's backing track is available for solo performers to use. It would be interesting to know whether Greenwood used this or made his own recording for the concert.

This is an exceptional piece of music, but similarly to problems with the Crash Ensemble in session 4, it was over amplified in places which rather broke the spell. The Barbican Hall has great acoustics, and orchestras manage to play from ppp to fff, so it must be possible to ensure that people in the back can hear without damaging the hearing of everyone else. Additionally Greenwood nervousness sometimes got in the way of his interpretation of the rhythms – but it was a good effort and fantastic to hear this live. After all it was a big night for him, so perhaps his nervousness could be forgiven.

The second work, the suite from 'There will be blood' (2012) by Greenwood was performed by the strings section of the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by André de Ridder plus Greenwood (somewhere at the back) playing an ondes martinot. I counted six short sections, at fifteen minutes long for the whole work they can only be a couple of minutes each. Each section had a different feel or style (a bit like a sampler): minimalist, a Vaughn-Williams English sound, rhythm driven figures and slap bass, or tender muted strings.

There were some lovely bits in there, especially in the last three movements – I could imagine the music enhancing the film. I would have liked the ondes martinot to have been at the front though – we so rarely get to see one played, and tonight we could only hear it.

Jessica Rivera. Photo credit: Isabel Pinto
Jessica Rivera. Photo credit: Isabel Pinto
The final piece was Henryk Mikolaj Górecki's (1933-2010) famous third symphony, 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' Op. 36 (1976) for orchestra and soprano (Jessica Rivera).

Górecki was a prominent composer in Poland throughout the 1950's and 60's, but only slowly became to be known in Europe and America from the 1980's onwards. His rise to fame outside of Poland was accelerated due to an exceptionally popular recording of 'Symphony no. 3' that Nonesuch made in 1992 to commemorate the memory of those lost during the Holocaust.

The first movement, Lento—Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile, is a 15th century Polish song "Holy Cross Lament" where Mary is mourning the loss her son. The second sets a prayer written on the wall of a Gestapo cell by an 18 year old girl during World War II, Lento e largo - Tranquillissimo. The final movement, Lento - Cantabile-semplice, is a song from the Silesian uprisings (1919–21), originating from an area near where Górecki was born, and describes a mother looking for her son lost in the war.

Soprano Rivera struck the right tone of proud sorrow and heartfelt anguish, while Górecki's long repeating lines played by the BBC Concert Orchestra maintained tension throughout. Conductor André de Ridder kept a stern but encouraging eye on the performers, keeping them quiet while Rivera was singing and bringing up instruments with important lines. It is easy to see why this work caught the imagination of so many people.

Different sources talk about Górecki's anxiety about his music, and, after this publicity surrounding 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs', it took another 14 years before Górecki completed his fourth symphony.

Congratulations Nonesuch – now for the next 40 years...
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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