Friday, 22 April 2016

Bringing the vibrant Americas to rush hour Waterloo - the Southbank Sinfonia

Southbank Sinfonia
Southbank Sinfonia
Bryce Dessner, Osvaldo Golijov, John Adams; Southbank Sinfonia, Holly Mathieson; Rush Hour concert at St John's Church, Waterloo
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2016
Star rating: 4.0

High energy and strong technique from these young players in contemporary music from the Americas

As part of its mission to prepare young music graduates for the professional life of a musician, the Southbank Sinfonia gives regular Rush Hour concerts at St John's Church, Waterloo. The concerts are free, and there is a glass of wine before hand, with the audience asked to give what they can afterwards. I went along on Thursday 21 April 2016 to hear the musicians perform a programme of contemporary music from the Americas, with Bryce Dessner's Aheyem, Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round and John Adams' Chamber Symphony, with the last work being conducted by Holly Mathieson.

Each work was introduced by one of the musicians, each putting a personal slant on the presentation and thus giving a lively and informative feel to the concerts. The audience of around 150 people was enthusiastic and receptive, many seemed to be regulars and a number round me were clearly hearing this music for the first time.

Bryce Dessner is a guitarist with the American band, The National, but he also writes music which bridges the popular/classical gap. His work for string quartet, Aheyem (which means home in Yiddish) was written for the Kronos Quartet. In her introduction the violinist Kalliopi pointed out that the four players (Essi Kiiski, Kalliopi Mitropoullou, Ralitsa Naydenova and Zoe Saubat) each came from a different country so the word home meant something very different to each of them. The work is intended to be played by amplified instruments, but here the quartet played acoustically and allowed the lively acoustic at St John's Church to do its work. Dessner uses a number of different playing techniques besides simple bowing and Kalliopi got the players to demonstrate to the audience before hand.


The work itself started with a strong attack, with the opening having a sense of pure rhythm but then other details started to emerge from the texture. Dessner seemed fascinated with using repeated rhythms and different metres in the various parts, thus creating some striking poly-rhythmic moments. Then it is texture which is explored with the range of bowing techniques available to the players, and finally the work built up a real head of steam in the amazing string crossing finale. Without amplification the players had to work hard to give the sound the strength it needed, and the results were wonderfully vibrant and immediate.

The cellist Matthieu gave us a lively introduction to Osvaldo Golijov's The Last Round which was written in reaction to the death of Astor Piazzolla but included references to boxing too! The work pits two groups of upper strings against each other, with just two cellos and a double bass to mediate between. It was played conductorless, with violinist Eugene Lee leading the ensemble, and the upper strings played standing up. The first movement, Movido, urgente - Subito meno mosso had a vibrant, competitive feel to it and was strong on atmosphere and excitement. This was real high energy music, all based around a fundamental tango rhythm. The second movement, Muerte del Angel - Lentissimo was richly soulful with multiple string lines creating some multi-layered textures.

Percussionist Tom introduced John Adams' Chamber Symphony, pointing out that the work was one of those chosen as a result of suggestions offered by the players at the beginning of the season. It was his task also to mention money (the orchestra gets no subsidy from the Arts Council and relies on sponsors and donations), and he charmingly gave us a run down on exactly what it costs to rent the various exotic bits of percussion kit that the work calls for. Luckily during the work itself, Tom demonstrated that he certainly knew how to use them.

John Adams Chamber Symphony was written in response to Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony but Adams took the sound-tracks of 1950s cartoons as his basic musical material. In three movements, the evocative names are Mongrel Airs, Aria with Walking Bass and Roadrunner.

Starting with a strong pulse from the cowbell, the first movement was real high energy, with the young players displaying impressive technical control under Holly Mathieson's clear and strong direction. But there was also a sense of swing to the various motifs, including some lovely hints of jazz clarinet, eventually reaching a riotous, drum-heavy conclusion. And the work that it called to mind wasn't Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony but Darius Milhaud's La creation du monde with its use of rhythm, jazz and bitonality. Aria with Walking Bass took a strong bass part (double bass and bassoon) and expanded over it with slow moving lines which were gradually decorated with shorter motifs from other instruments including some mad-cap detailing from the synthesizer. The players impressively welded all the disparate elements into a complex, multi-layered whole. The final movement, Roadrunner was not quite as fast as I expected from my memories of the cartoon, but the music seemed wonderfully anarchic with a strong bass from double bass and contra-bassoon and again mad-cap synthesizer. Adams creates a structure from multiple repeated elements, a sort of high-energy minimalism, with hint of George Gershwin's Cuban Overture thrown in. An extended violin solo (Scott Lowry) effectively silences everyone, but only for a moment and the work moved towards another riotous conclusion.

In all three works the players showed an impressive combination of technique and energy, bringing great personality to the music and clearly communicating with their audience. The programming for the Rush Hour concerts is wonderfully varied with May 12 bringing symphonies by James MacMillan and Shostakovich, and May 19 bringing Cherubini and Brahms' Violin Concerto. Further information from the orchestra's website.

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