Late Music Concerts last night, Saturday 5 May, presented the Ligeti String Quartet at the Unitarian Chapel, in a concert of Glass, LeFanu, Lancaster, Crowther and Adams. Late Music presents a series of concerts every year of living composers. A feature of this York based series is the performance of new work by local composers and is bringing to York a reputation for new music as an antidote to the city’s reputation for Early music created by the presence of the National Centre for Early Music.
The Ligeti String Quartet was formed in 2010 by graduates from the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and Oxford University to perform 20th and 21st Century music.
The concert comprised of two halves each opened by a work by Philip Glass and then one by David Lancaster: the first half was concluded with a piece by Steve Crowther; and the second by two short pieces, one by Nicola LeFanu and the final piece by John Adams. The string quartet occupies much the same space in music as the poem does in the world of the written word: the string quartet often reveals much more about a composer than their bigger set pieces and can be very personal.
This is certainly true of the first piece by Philip Glass. Glass is a major influence in 20th Century avant garde, and he has a considerable following, perhaps because he has been able to be both experimental and accessible. Certainly this concert was given to a packed house and the inclusion of the two Glass quartets will have brought in some of the audience. Glass’ music is harmonically interesting, rhythmically exciting and it is not hard to follow. The opening piece, his String Quartet No. 4, Buczac , was written in memory of Brian Buczac who died of AIDS in 1987. After the rhythmically relentless opening movement the second movement was reminiscent of Vaughan Williams Symphonia Antartica though the texture became a little more spare as the movement went on. The last movement was describe in the notes as ‘hopeful yet nostalgic’ but it had a grim reflective flavour that accurately describes New York city.
The second work, Vertigo, by David Lancaster, was based on a fragment of the Bernard Herrmann score of the Hitchcock film Vertigo. The piece from the beginning was quite driven, with a cyclic structure which occurs five times, with a fragment of a sixth, to illustrate the obsessive nature of Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine. Vertigo also captured the disassociation the sufferer of vertigo experiences as their mind switches to focus on balance and consequent total detachment from the real world.
The first half concluded with Steve Crowther’s String Quartet No. 1 (A Song for Salford). The piece was based on a trip made to Salford from York and encompasses aspects of train journey and the people met while in Salford: a city of high unemployment and ‘visibly decaying’. This piece certainly captured the sense of journey with onomatopoeic passages and sense of restlessness. The programming of this piece as the last in the first half was unfortunate. As with the previous two works, the piece exploited the violin’s lower range and by about half way through the audience became somewhat restless.
In the Glass and Lancaster, the performers exhibited a degree of raggedness in their ensemble as if they didn’t quite trust one another; and although this was less evident in the Crowther piece, this lack of fluidity made the pieces that little bit harder to listen to. Although the program notes made much of melodic lines, in all three pieces, and even through the second half, these melodies were fragmentary and hard to grasp which made listening quite hard work. In this context the length and positioning of ‘A Song for Salford’ did not display the piece to its best advantage.
For the second half, the ensemble was brilliant, as if this was different ensemble. The reason for this became apparent after looking at the Ligeti’s concert history where three of the pieces in the second half had been included in previous concerts.
Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2, Company, was originally commissioned by the New York Theatre company as piece for string orchestra as incidental music for Samuel Beckett’s prose poem: Company. Incidental music is not meant to make statements and this piece is certainly restrained. It was rhythmically interesting and had a discernible harmonic structure and one could sense a video of a running figure passing over a variety of landscapes.
This concert featured the first performance of David Lancaster’s Velocity. Velocity was conceived as a companion piece to Vertigo, and even though it shares the same opening viola motif, it is not another movement of a single piece. Velocity exploits violin harmonics to great effect and there is a downward motif that creates a sense of disassociation and unusual danger. Velocity was very effective.
Up to this point in the concert none of the works really exploited the range and power of the instruments. One of the downsides of programming concerts of new work where the planner has no idea what is coming, coupled with the somewhat reflective and poetic nature of the string quartet, is that it can be very hard to put together a balanced evening. Hitherto the pieces focussed on the lower range, particularly of the violins, to the extent that several of the pieces could quite well have been played on the viola without any significant difference in sonority, so it was a relief in the LeFanu and Adams to hear more of the upper registers of the instrument.
Nicola LeFanu’s String Quartet No. 2, though not quite the soaring stings the audience was craving for by this time, was certainly brighter and more optimistic. John Adams’ Fellow Traveller too made better use of the range of the instruments and was played with considerable flair and brio. It made an excellent conclusion to the evening.
All in all, Late Music Concerts delivered a really good evening of new music coupled with some excellent performances of the music of Philip Glass, Nicola LeFanu and John Adams. David Lancaster, who is Head of Programme for Music at York St. John can be relied upon fascinating and accessible new music. Steve Crowther, who with David Power, founded the Late Music, showed his power and versatility, and, in retrospect, his ‘A Song for Salford’ should have been performed in the second half with Glass’ Second String Quartet finishing the first half.
Next Month, on 2 June, Late Music presents Rika Zayasku performing a recital of Piano works including first performances of works by Michael Parkin and Steve Crowther. On 7 July the Micklegate singers brings to York an exciting programme of choral pieces.