Tuesday 12 March 2013

Not another string quartet!

Schubert Ensemble 30th Anniversary Celebrations: 
(Looking to the Future 2) Schubert Ensemble commissions

The Schubert Ensemble has been performing for 30 years, the last 18 years with the current line up: William Howard (Piano), Simon Blendis  (violin), Jane Salmon  (cello), Douglas Paterson  (viola), and Peter Buckoke  (double bass). “String quartet plus piano...” you may say, “So what?” Well, they won the Royal Philharmonic Society Best Chamber Ensemble Award in 1998 (and were short-listed again 3 years ago). They have recorded over 30 CDs. They champion unknown works by composers and work with students at the Birmingham conservatoire. But more importantly to this evening’s performance(9 March 2013) at Kings Place they have commissioned over 80 compositions, over half of which were written for students and amateurs as part of their Chamber Music 2000 project.

Tonight’s concert contained eight commissions including the London premier of Joe Cutler’s Slippery Music and a world premiere of Edward Rushton’s Piano Removal 2. As a measure of how well the Schubert Ensemble is liked and respected almost all of the composers were present at the concert, as well as a smattering of other composers who have written for the Schubert Ensemble such as Judith Weir and Anthony Powers.

First on the programme was Piano Quartet (written for the 2012 London Spitalfields Festival) by Huw Watkins (1976 -). Huw studied composition with Robin Holloway, Alexander Goehr and Julian Anderson at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. He was awarded the RCM's Constant and Kit Lambert Junior Fellowship in 2001 where he now teaches. He is also the Jerwood Associate Composer for Music Theatre Wales, who performed his chamber opera, Crime Fiction. A concert pianist in his own right, Huw doesn’t pull punches but William is more than up for the challenge.

The Piano quartet began with quiet phrases passed between the strings before the calm was shattered by the piano entry. After a frenzied (described by the composer as ‘restless’) section with American undertones, reminiscent of Gershwin, there was a return to the opening phrases prior to one last shout before the calm ending.

Slippery Music for piano quartet by Joe Cutler (1968 -) is his third composition for the Schubert Ensemble.  Joe studied music at Huddersfield and Durham, and won a scholarship to study at the Chopin Academy in Warsaw. He currently teaches composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Using directions like ‘obsessive and neurotic’ and ‘twitchy and playful’ Joe is all about experimenting with emotional context. The frenetic first section where sometimes the musicians played as a group and sometimes seemed to be locked in their own worlds, was balanced by the slippery, bluesy, glissando section.

Edward Rushton’s (1972 -) Piano Removal 2 for piano quartet completed the first half of the programme. Edward is also a concert pianist having studied at Chetham's School of Music, and with composition masters including Robin Holloway and James MacMillan at King's College, Cambridge, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Zurich Conservatoire. When asked to compose something with a Scottish theme Edward used Claire Harman’s biography of Robert Lewis Stevenson (a bit of a composer himself) as a starting point. The story goes that having settled in Upolu Stevenson sent for his piano to be brought over from Scotland. It duly arrived only a little worse for wear. The five parts of this work each deals with a different aspect of the journey.

Edward’s vivid painting of the rain, of family life – everyone playing something different at once resolving into a concordant group effort, of the sea voyage with its homesick folk  tunes was delightful. Especially so was the final section where the piano, having arrived, joins in the family music making clearly out of tune.

Bringing Bach up to date, the arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Five chorales for various groupings of all five performers by John Woolrich (1954 -) was written for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000. This new twist on the familiar Bach was contrasted against the Czech composer Pavel Zemek Novák’s (1957 -) Unisono (Homage to the Bach  family), which was commissioned as a companion to the Woolrich, and is the second quintet that Pavel has written for the Schubert Ensemble. While John’s work retains long flowing lines, Pavel’s piece sounds like someone has taken a razor blade to a score of Bach and reassembled it as a collage. Tiny fragments of the music of different members of Bach’s family remain glistening between the cut notes.

The orchestration changed to quartet (minus piano) for Night Song and Garden Quadrille by David Knotts (1972 -). David was a finalist in the 1994 Young Musician of the Year Competition. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, with Robin Holloway at Cambridge University, Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and with Martin Butler. He currently teaches at  the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity College of Music.  ‘Night Song’ is a set of surreal dance fragments, switching between rhythms, while the ‘Quadrille’, requiring some virtuoso playing, leads into a chorale-like section finally suggesting sunrise and birdsong of the dawn chorus as the summer dances came to an end.

Another important occasion marked during this concert was  David Matthews’ (1943 -) 70th birthday. It is also the 20th anniversary of Five to Tango. David is a self taught composer who after deciding he wanted to work in composition became an apprentice with Benjamin Britten. Five to Tango’ is one of several versions of the fourth movement of David’s Fourth Symphony – this arrangement and two others were all made for the Schubert Ensemble. While clearly based on tango rhythms and themes, extra beats and repetitions move this from a classical tango into something quite new.

Finally the entire ensemble finished the concert with American Rounds by Martin Butler (1960 -). Martin studied at the University of Manchester, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Princeton University. He currently teaches at the University of Sussex. He has been composer in residence at Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the United States and was the first 'Composer in Focus' for Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra. ‘American Rounds’ was commissioned in 1998 and explores different details of American folk music including a roaring hoedown. With hints of Aaron Copland’s ever popular ‘Appalachian Spring’ this work completed the Schubert Ensemble showcase evening.

Happy Anniversary Schubert Ensemble!

review by Hilary Glover

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