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Author: Fernando Magre

20 fev 2017

Last update: 27 abr 2017

Saturday the 22nd of January was the official opening date of the British Year – the highlight of the 2017 Season at Casa da Música in Porto. Lead by Peter Rundel and Pedro Neves, the Remix Ensemble presented an inspiring repertoire, completely unprecedented in Portugal. Three British composers, three entirely different languages.

Van Gogh Blue, by Julian Anderson (1967), pays homage to the far-from crazy personality – as the composer points out – of the Dutch painter. Through the evocation of colours but, above all, through Van Gogh's letters about his artistic projects, Anderson builds a piece for the ensemble divided in five parts, which concludes his trilogy about the colour blue. The colour, as a matter of fact, is the keynote in Van Gogh Blue. Being well aware of how impossible it is to transform the visual phenomena verbatim to sound, Julian Anderson found in words a medium (not needed, but valuable) to transmit his idea to the listener. In the concert notes, Anderson briefly describes each movement and makes it clear that the piece aims to "commemorate the most profoundly humane of all artists". Julian Anderson's music presents a very engaging impulse, a result of his singular melody and harmonic compositions which, despite not resisting the temptation of tonality, does not fall victim to banality.

The highlights of this piece are in the parts written for clarinet - masterfully played by Victor Pereira and Ricardo Alves. The instruments are revealed scenically, as with each movement - they are in different parts of the stage – they are always on the edges and symmetrically placed. Apart from the scenic result that those simple moves cause, we have to emphasize the audio result, a spatialisation strengthened by the configuration of the Sala Suggia in Casa da Música and, above all, by the rhythmic accuracy and fine-tuning of the clarinettists.

Afterwards, Skin, for soprano and ensemble, by Rebecca Saunders (1967) was presented. If the previous work is marked by melody, Skin, on the contrary, sounds rougher. The softness of the skin is certainly there, however, it is in the roughness that this piece seems to take hold. But it is also possible to draw a parallel with Anderson's work, seeing as it's through a poetically aseptic text that Rebecca Saunders refers to her work (although without actually describing it). Moreover, it should be noted that it was in a text by Samuel Beckett – The Ghost Trio – that the composer found the "sheer stimulus" for Skin. In this composition, Saunders explores a rich colour pallet through the timbre research of instruments and voice. Particularly interesting is the considerable set of percussions designed by the composer, made of different materials, forms and sounds, in addition to the traditional instruments.

In Skin, the highlight was the magnificent interpretation by the British soprano, Juliet Fraser. Owing to her clear voice, Fraser enchants with her versatility and virtuosity, while being able to explore varied vocal possibilities, with equal expressiveness and power. With shouts, whispers, recitations and chanting, Juliet Fraser embodied and made us feel the music of Rebecca Saunders on our own skin.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to the impressive Theseus Game, by the veteran Sir Harrison Birtwistle – composer in residence at the Casa da Música in 2017. Birtwistle (1934) is one of the most important composers of our time, and acknowledged as being among the ones responsible for the development of the British avant-garde music.

During his residency at Casa da Música in 2017, Sir Harrison Birtwistle granted an interview to the institution’s newspaper, from which I quote two moments where the composer reflects about his music path:

"So, when I look into the past in some ways it’s like somebody else wrote it. In my view of them it’s like they’ve changed, but it’s not that they have changed, I have changed. So, my relationship has changed. In a funny way when you’re a composer you always think, as an artist that you have the freedom to do what you want, but in a way, you don’t. So, the older you get there’s a difference between your relationship with it now as opposed to how it was in the past. (…) Whenever I’ve written music I’ve always felt that you have a truce with an idea.

"(…) The music is a sort of wound and I remember the wounds but after a time, in response to the past, when I hear them again I think ‘wait a minute, the wound has come’, and very often my neurosis about the wound has gone. It’s disappeared. It’s like something that has got better; and yet other things appear and you think ‘why did you do that?’, another wound has appeared in the light of the moment now. All creative people, if they’re any good, are neurotic about their work, and very often I’m very surprised about how I think that it’s much better than I remember."

Theseus Game, a work from 2002/2003 for a big ensemble, presents a uniqueness from the beginning: there are two conductors. According to one of them, it's not a "cosmetic" choice, but a necessity, seeing as the overlap of different tempos would be a herculean task for only one conductor. Theseus Game stems from the myth of Theseus, who defeats the Minotaur and manages to escape the Labyrinth of Crete using a ball of thread given by his beloved, Ariadne. In Cross’ work, Ariadne's thread is represented by a nearly continuous melody, passed from one instrument to another, which must always stand out in front of the group, while the labyrinth is represented by the ensemble. That brief movement is very important to the formal organization of the piece and, according to Salzman and Dési, the ritualistic form is idiomatic in the musical-theatrical work by Birtwistle, especially due to his frequent choice of mythological themes. The virtuous melodies, the textural explorations and the play with tempo in Theseus Game shows a matured composer, who has complete compositional control and a musical language that does not concede.

Lastly, I should emphasize the excellent performance by the conductors Pedro Neves and Peter Rundel, the latter being the head conductor of the Remix Ensemble, a group also deserving of compliments for its flawless and vibrant interpretation of the program. Judging by the long minutes of cheerful applause, I believe that the program for the British Year, with the residency of Sir Harrison Birtwistle in the 2017 season at Casa da Música, will be a great success.

Fernando Magre
  • Fernando Magre
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