Monday 10 September 2018

A journey through time and music: 12 Ensemble at the Barbican, on tour and a debut disc

12 Ensemble (Photo Mattias Bjorklund)
12 Ensemble (Photo Mattias Bjorklund)
This week is a big week for the 12 Ensemble. It is appearing at Milton Court on Sunday 16 September, a big move for this conductorless string ensemble (artistic directors Eloise-Fleur Thom, violin, and Max Ruisi, cello) whose first evening concert as part of the the Barbican's Music Programme it is.  The programme, under the title Reborn, includes music by Tansy Davies, Benjamin Britten, John Woolrich and Schubert. And to cap that, the group's first album, Resurrection, is released on Sancho Panza records.

Max Ruisi describes the evening as a journey through time and music, looking at how composers re-interpret works dear to them. So they are performing John Dowland's Lachrymae alongside Tansy Davies Residuum and Britten's Lachrymae for solo viola and strings, both of which rework the Dowland, plus John Woolrich's Ulysses Awakes. In the second half is Schubert's epic Death and the Maiden quartet in an arrangement for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler. This is a work that Max feels Mahler connected with, as the arrangement doesn't mess with the music, Mahler simply adds a double bass part and adjusts the balance in places to allow for using a larger body of strings, so it is very true to the music.

Tansy Davies' piece Residuum really deviates from Dowland, and Max describes it as being inspired by the pathos of the Dowland work, giving the impression of the ghose of a former time coming back into the world today. Davies takes the atmophere and emotional content of the Dowland and puts her own stamp on it. Dowland's Lachrymae will be performed by the group in an arrangement by Max Ruisi, using the same orchestra as Tansy Davies' piece, so that the lute part is now in the strings.

John Woolrich's Ulysses Awakes, for solo viola and strings, is his re-working of Monteverdi, and in a cross-collaboration with choreographer Alexander Whitley, the ensemble has created a film, which will be screened behind them as they perform.

Whilst the 12 Ensemble usually plays with 12 players (as its name suggests) for this concert they are using 14, adding an extra viola and cello with the Schubert in mind, as Mahler's arrangement is big and dramatic.

There will be no conductor, working conductorless is at the heart of what the ensemble does and inflects their whole approach to the music. The group aims to get the same intensity and depth of thought in a performance as would come from a performance by a string quartet. When I spoke to Max at the end of last week the group was just about to go to Cornwall for a five days, an immersive experience of rehearsing and living together which will give them the luxury of time to discuss the works and get everyone's input.

Max feels that the group's approach delivers a performance which is so much more engaged and committed, as everyone knows the music inside out. Whilst not every performance is preceded by time away together, performances do need time to prepare so for this concert the scores were sent out to the players months ago. There is a spirit of commitment in the group, with everyone coming fully prepared to rehearsals, so that rehearsals themselves can be devoted to fine tuning. It also helps that the players have known each other for years, and play with the same technique.

Before rehearsals proper, the four principals will often work together and then Max and Eloise-Fleur will take a strong idea of the approach to the music to the rehearsals, and this provides the framework within with others can contribute ideas. Whilst Max and Eloise guide the rehearsals they try not to talk too much.

The group started in 2012 and arose because Max met Eloise and they fell in love with the idea of combining a chamber music sensibility with larger scale works. They were lucky enough to have friends who were high flying chamber-music musicians and who liked the idea. It required commitment, as there was little pay at the beginning. And, in fact, many of the original group are still there, and Max feels that knowing the players are friends gives the ensemble a special feel, and the spirit of the ensemble comes over in its performances.

Also this week, on 14 September, the group's debut album, Resurrection, is released on the Sancho Panza label and whilst the disc has some different works to the concert both have they same feeling of composers regenerating ideas. The disc features John Woolrich's Ulysses Awakes, Lutoslawski's Musique Funebre and Response, which is an homage to Bartok particularly the Music for strings, percussion and celesta, and a piece by Bryce Dessner Response Funebre which is Dessner's emotional response to the Lutoslawski. Also on the disc is Kate Whitley's Autumn Songs for 12 solo strings; Whitley is a friend of their's and the group commissioned the piece. [Further information about the album, including download links, from]

They will be performing the album in Lanzarote on 13 October 2018 at the Festival de Musica Visual, and the group will be performing in a converted Volcano!

12 Ensemble (Photo Mattias Bjorklund)
12 Ensemble (Photo Mattias Bjorklund)
The Milton Reborn performance on 16 September, as part of the Barbican Centre's music programme is the start of a short tour, and the group will be performing the programme at the Stoller Hall, Manchester (19 September) and St George's Bristol (28 September). In London, the viola soloist will be Jennifer Stumm, and in Bristol and Manchester, it will be Maxim Rysanov.

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