Tuesday 24 June 2014

Spitalfields summer festival: No nights dark enough

Valgeir Sigurðsson
Valgeir Sigurðsson
Valgeir Sigurðsson - No nights dark enough; Christopher Lowery, City of London Sinfonia, Hugh Brunt; Spitalfields Festival at Village Underground
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 17 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Showcase for Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson

The first Spitalfields Festival, held in 1976, was inspired by Hawksmoore's Christ Church Spitalfields, a then run down concert space. The festival series has since grown into a bi-yearly celebration of early and new music, held in a variety of unusual venues throughout the East End and incorporating outreach to local groups and schools. The Festival is a strong supporter of new music, commissioning several new works each year.

Tonight's concert (Tuesday 17th June), 'No nights dark enough' performed by the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Hugh Brunt with counter tenor Christopher Lowrey, and held in the Village underground, was a perfect example of this.

Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson (1971-), founder of Greenhouse Studios and the record label Bedroom Community, was asked to write a piece based on John Dowland's (1563-1626) lute song 'Flow my tears'. The result of this was tonight's world premiere 'No nights dark enough'. The 'flow' of the concert and choice of companion pieces stemmed from Sigurðsson's response to this song, described by Sigurðsson as 'unspeakably sad and beautiful.

Christopher Lowery
Christopher Lowery
Counter tenor Christopher Lowrey, offstage and accompanied by strings from the City of London Sinfonia, sang Dowland's 'Flow my tears' and 'In darkness let me dwell'. Dowland himself was born in London, but travelled widely, including to Denmark where he worked for King Christian IV, before returning to London and working for King James I. The acoustics in the cavernous ex-warehouse were so interesting that although I could hear where Lowrey was singing from, the sound the strings made seemed to be coming from a completely different direction.

The music flowed straight from this into the first of Sigurðsson's pieces 'The crumbling', which included a layer of electronic sound controlled live by the composer. The sound world created was one of stillness, with scratching and knocking from the string players leading to a 'tune' on the piano, interrupted by bass and covered by the introduction of a slow viola line.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was another English composer who was born, and worked, in London. Included in the concert was 'Chacony in G minor' by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), based on a work by Purcell, which Brunt conducted at quick a lick. While the concept of having a modern work based on a 17th century dance paralleled what Sigurðsson was doing, the speed resulted in something very cheery rather than sombre. This may have been an intentional contrast but unfortunately it also lost some definition, and hence its emotional pull, due to the acoustics.

The next piece 'Darknesse visible' by Thomas Adès (1971-), an interpretation of 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell', was powerfully played on solo piano by Catherine Edwards and left the audience gasping.

'Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten' Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (1935-) for string orchestra and bell, a fine example of Pärt's tintinnabuli style of canon, led into the final work composed by Sigurðsson: 'No nights dark enough'.

Sigurðsson said that he listened to as many recording of 'Flow my tears' as he could, and read, and re-read, the poem before he started to write. But once he started writing he did not listen to it again so that it was 'a distant relative that might have a similarly shaped nose'.

Unlike Britten's obvious use of Purcell's Chacony, there was no evident reference to the Dowland here to grasp. 'No nights dark enough' with its complicated rhythms and abrupt changes, was a menacing cousin of the Dowland work - Mexican waves of brass sound and a mechanical sound close to that of hydraulics, produced by blowing air and speaking through brass instruments, merged with watery effects from the electronics.

The concert may have been short, but it was a great showcase for Sigurðsson and the musicians from the City of London Sinfonia, especially Catherine Edwards, and Christopher Lowrey, and a chance to hear how historical English music has a far reaching influence across the globe.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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