Wednesday 3 May 2023

Silence, texture and atmosphere: music by John Luther Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Judith Weir, and Gary Carpenter at Royal Academy of Music's Fragile Festival

The Royal Academy of Music's Fragile Festival, created in association with The Listening Planet, is a week of events inspired by the natural world
Stones and Light: John Luther Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Judith Weir, Gary Carpenter; Bridget Yee, Tiago Soares Silva, Oona Lowther, Aisha Palmer; Angela Burgess Recital Hall at Royal Academy of Music
Reviewed 2 May 2023

Four contemporary chamber works inspired by the natural world, explorations of silence, texture and atmosphere in terrific performances

The Royal Academy of Music's Fragile Festival, created in association with The Listening Planet, is a week of events inspired by the natural world. Events opened with a lunchtime concert on 2 May 2023, Stones and Light in Angela Burgess Recital Hall when Bridget Yee (piano), Tiago Soares Silva (violin), Oona Lowther (cello) and Aisha Palmer (harp) played John Luther Adams' Tukiliit (The Stone People who Live in the Wind), Kaija Saariaho's Light and Matter, Judith Weir's Night and Gary Carpenter's Azaleas.

First, Bridget Yee performed John Luther Adams' 2012 piece Tukiliit (The Stone People who Live in the Wind) for solo piano. This is inspired by the Inuit word for any stone object with special meaning and by stone sculptures called inuksuit created by the Inuit. It began with heavy chords performance across the piano's full range. But it was the space between the notes that was as much important, the resonances that the music created and that were allowed time to develop. Chords developed into arpeggios, but always time to appreciate the space between; though there were moments where structure developed, the sense of freedom came over most strongly. Yee gave a wonderfully strong and uncompromising performance.

Next came Kaija Saariaho's 2014 work, Light and Matter for piano trio played by Tiago Soares Silva, Oona Lowther and Bridget Yee. Saariaho's starting point for the piece was light kinetic energy, she says of it 'I wrote this piece in New York, while watching from my window the changing light and colors of Morningside Park. Besides providing me with the name for the piece, perhaps that continuous transformation of light on the glinting leaves and the immobile trunks of the solid trees became the inspiration for the musical materials in this piece'.

It began with just piano and cello, low rumbles developing into more rhapsodic moments, all about textures rather than particular pitches, and when the violin joined we appreciated the way the three instruments each created rhapsodic textures that intersected. This was wonderfully atmospheric yet technically demanding music. In the middle, there developed more dramatic interactions and strenuous moments, blowing up and dying away until the final section where there were moments of stasis, fragments of structure giving way to freedom, all with real atmosphere. A terrific and wonderfully engaged performance from the three performers.

Judith Weir's Night was written in 2015 for violin and cello, here played by Tiago Soares Silva and Oona Lowther. It was written for a late evening concert and the starting point was the idea of nocturnal creatures who have highly developed senses of sight and hearing. All the music is quiet and Weir uses a range of extended techniques so that we had a series of short sections, each of which seemed to explore a different range of timbres and textures. The first movement, Night Menagerie was full of tiny, intense gestures, atmospheric, eerie and unsettling with a great use of silence, the space between the notes. Night Anxiety featured atmospherics and drama alongside intensely quiet music including the cello playing on the tailpiece. Night Radio featured fragments of more structured music, jazzy motifs intersecting and gradually blurring.

Finally came Azaleas by Gary Carpenter, professor of composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, written in 2005 for violin, cello and harp. This began with a combination of sinuous melodic material and plucked notes, the three instruments moving the textures around to imaginative effect. There seemed to follow a series of short movements exploring different sound and instrumental combinations. Atmospheric trills, silence, jazzy motifs, a highly ceremonial moment for harp solo, and a strong final section which mixed melodic material full of highly rhythmic elements with moments of stasis. The result was to explore widely what this distinctive trio of instruments might offer.

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