Sunday, 18 January 2015

Newington Green Acoustic Concerts

Quest Ensemble
Quest Ensemble
Quest Ensemble, Voice; Newington Green Unitarian Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 17 2015
Improvised classical trio and close harmony women's voices in this contrasting double bill

New Unity Unitarian Chapel in Newington Green is a remarkably historic place. The chapel itself dates from 1708 and the worship there has included such famous names as Mary Wollstencraft. The chapel with its box pews was the venue for Newington Green Acoustic Concerts presenting a double bill of the Quest Ensemble and Voice on Saturday 17 January 2015. The Quest Ensemble is a piano trio, Tara Franks (cello), Preetha Narayanan (violin), Filipe Sousa (piano) whose repertoire blends the classical piano trio with jazz and improvisation via collaboratively written pieces. Voice is a female vocal trio, Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks, Emily Burn, whose repertoire repertoire stretches from early music, to folk-songs and popular songs through to contemporary pieces.

The evening was quite intimate, the chapel is relatively small and the packed audience were all close to the performers. There was a relaxed casualness about the proceedings, many of the audience members knew people performing and there were no tickets (you got your hand stamped) and no printed programme. Instead the performers addressed the audience directly, chatting about the pieces and their origin. The two groups interleaved their performances, rather than doing long sets, so that each half of the programme was a varied mix of vocal and instrumental.

Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks, Emily Burn all met in the Oxford Girls Choir and they formed Voice in 2006. Technically a close harmony group their repertoire stretches from Hildegard of Bingen through to specially composed pieces, and a big influence is Stevie Wishart with whom they have worked since they were in the Oxford Girls Choir. Their programme included singer songwriter Emily Levy's How Sweetly You Burn setting words by Hildegard of Bingen, Stevie Wishart's Happy Song, a 14th century French chanson, folk song arrangements The Water of the Tyne runs between us, The Water is wideThe lowlands of Holland, as well as glees, broadside ballads and catches. They finished the first half with the Stevie Wishart piece which was written for them and, using beat-box style techniques, pushed their technique and created something wonderful.

Their tone is plangent and very direct, with a hint of the throatiness which defines continental style trebles and veering even towards the traditional Bulgarian women singers. They all had fluent, flexible voices and their performances (sung from memory) were immediately engaging. These are performers who disguise their very great technical expertise and they impressed greatly. I certainly look forward to hearing them again.

The Quest Ensemble is a group of three performers Tara Franks, Preetha Narayanan, Filipe Sousa, who all met at the Guildhall School of Music. Their repertoire is all collaboratively written with scope for improvisation. The essential sound of the group is based around Filipe Sousa's fine highly jazz-influenced piano, complemented by the more classical style of playing from Tara Franks, and Preetha Narayanan. Their pieces all have concrete titles, Reflections, Willow, Train and Franks explains the concrete circumstances behind the evocative titles, often related to the location of writing the music.

These are very much songs, rather than extended pieces; songs without words in fact. Many are compact and quite often I felt that I wanted them to last long and develop more. You felt that, at the moment, they went only a little way beyond simple re-statement.

The style of the ensemble mixes elements of jazz, minimalism and 20th century English music. In some pieces the influences are clearly audible, their first number Reflections was very jazz influenced partly due to Sousa's fine piano playing. In other pieces, when Sousa's piano was more regularly rhythmic, music veered very much towards minimalism. But not completely, there was a tendency to repeat motifs the way happens in minimalism, but the textures were very much denser and richer. Which led to the works where the group's style came out strongest. In works like Train, where the minimalism turns maximalism (though it was a very gentle and stylish Train), you could hear a distinct voice.

For the final item both groups came together, the instrumentalists started a striking texture and then the singers joined in with La novia, traditional song on Occitan. The result a complete delight.

Neither group used music at all, which was very impressive and certainly helped the very direct communication between artists and audience. Both groups have CD's available (you can buy Voice's Cd on their website, see below for a link to the Quest Ensemble's Cd on Amazon) and are certainly worth looking out, as is the Newington Green Unitarian Church. The next event at the church is the annual Richard Price memorial lecture which will be given by Ian Sinclair on Liberty, reason and ethics.
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