Saturday 14 June 2014

Spitalfields Summer Festival: a night at the museum

Geffrye Museum - 17th century herb garden - photography Sunniva Harte
Geffrye Museum - 17th century herb garden
photography Sunniva Harte
Last night (Wednesday 11 June 2014) I went to my first of the Spitalfields Music Festival concerts. This concert was held at the splendid Geffrye Museum a featured a series of recitals by students and composers from the Royal Academy of Music, after a glass of wine in their restaurant overlooking the herb garden in its summer splendour.

The Geffrye Museum opened a century ago in 1914 as a means of showcasing local furniture makers work. But the Geffrye alms houses were built 300 years ago by the Ironmongers' Guild to house 50 'inmates' over the age of 56. Sir Robert Geffrye himself who donated money for the houses was the head of the guild and the Lord Mayor of London.

Our guide (Laura) explained that the site in Hackney was chosen because of its clean air and proximity to the guild, which was based near Liverpool Street. At that time Hackney was very green and famous for its market gardens – both the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616 -1654) and Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729), who was the first to create a hybrid (between a carnation and Sweet William in 1717) had gardens in the area.

But by 1912 the 'inmates' requested to be moved to Kent due to increased industrialisation of the area, and crime. Ironically it was the alms houses' own garden which saved it from demolition after it was sold by the Inronmongers' Guild – as one of the few green spaces left it was preserved as a public space, and the museum developed.

The recitals were performed in the chapel (representing 1914), the new art gallery (representing 2014) and the minister's house, now a lecture theatre (representing 1714), and each contained music from the specified period, plus a new composition inspired by the era.

In the chapel Katherine Ovens (flute), Joe Bronstein (viola) and Heather Wrighton (harp) performed the 'Moderato Tempo' Arnold Bax's (1883-1953) 'Elegiac Trio' written in 1914 in memory of people who died in the Irish uprising of that year. Contained within it were hints of Irish folk tunes and the rolling countryside (evoked by circular themes from the harp).

'Aftermath' composed by Joss Smith (1993-) was based on the war poem 'Have you forgotten yet? by Siegfried Sassoon, which Smith read out before the performance. Within this I liked the way that the various sections were held together by a repeated feathery chord. Smith intended that melodic sections would be overtaken by rhythmic ones. Some of the sections were jazzy, others more smooth but with scratchy sul pont viola. A very effective piece.

The second performance I saw was in the art gallery. The first was 'Masks Op. 3' by Oliver Knussen (1952-) played on solo flute by Lindsay Bryden. Her performance was physical. She began behind the audience and walked forward to the front. Once there she sometimes played facing us, at other times facing a corner, and sometimes having a conversation with herself which involved her turning about to face opposite directions. This work demands a lot of skill, which she was definitely on top of. The end effect was a little surreal and dream-like.

A percussion group (Laura Bradford, Jake Brown, Emmanuel Joste, and James Larter) performed John Cage's (1912-1992) 'Living Room Music' written in 1991, in a lively and humorous way.

Lloyd Coleman
Lloyd Coleman
The new work in this set was 'Rhythm-has-you-two-hips-moving' by Lloyd Coleman (1991-) - apparently the mnemonic was given to him by a childhood music teacher. Coleman has won the BBC Proms Young Composers' Competition for three years in a row. In this piece the composer references different types on modern club music (if you are an aficionado doubtless you could recognise them – I could only tell that there were a lot of different rhythms). It was certainly very busy, requiring lots of extended techniques from the flute, and with lots of question and answers between the two performers.

Jonathan Woolgar
The third recital was performed on cello by Rebecca Herman. She played the famous cello suite 'No. 1 in G major' by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), but interleaved between its movements were vignettes by Jonathan Woolgar (1992), who won the BBC Proms Young Composers' Competition in 2010 when he was just 17. Similarly to Coleman (and the Bach), Woolgar stated that the thread between the movements of his 'Cello suite' was that of dance, and that somewhere in it was a hoe down.

Woolgar also wanted it to have the feeling of an etude. I'm not sure he managed the etude per se, as etude to me suggests lots of repetition of a certain technique, but it did involve different styles and techniques. Perhaps 'showcase' or 'sampler' would have been a better choice of word. In fact this very nature contrasted with the Bach as well as its smooth lines contrasting with the fast repetitions of the Bach.

While I enjoyed the evening and the concert was well thought out musically – a nice mix of styles and good historical links - I would have preferred more of chance to explore during the drinks, instead of being in the restaurant. I had hoped to have more of a look at the new gallery at least (if they were worried about us dripping wine over their exhibits).

Spitalfields Festival is ongoing until the 21st June all over the East End of London. There is music old and new, and a style to suit everyone.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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