Reverb 2012 at the Roundhouse
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times
Sunday 11 March 2012
“…I felt that music had gained a new excitement out of the blue.”
I was intrigued by the little website video trailing this year’s Reverb festival at the Roundhouse, in Camden. Participants such as the singer Imogen Heap, the conductor Hugh Brunt, the composer Gabriel Prokofiev, and the DJ Richard Lannoy gave their halfpennyworth, the gist being that classical concert-going, with its rigidly seated, unbibulous, theoretically silent audience, needs a kick in a certain place. The Roundhouse, once a shed in which trains turned around, and hence, as Heap points out, already imbued with a quasi-musical “movement”, is seen as a clean-slate, culturally neutral but reliably atmosphere and electric.
They don’t mention that the place has its own tradition in this respect. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, it was the cool base for much adventurous, fundamentally classical music-making, notably the BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts conducted and explicated by Pierre Boulez. The Reverb concert I attended, by the London Contemporary Orchestra under Brunt, struck me as quite an admirable return to this territory, without the discussion element, but with a new element of discreet clubbing.
Although Lannoy scoffs at the idea of asking someone not to talk when the music is playing, and I expected distractions to be rife, I was amazed to find the audience more manifestly attentive than practically any I’ve been in recently. As soon as the performance started, a sort of reverent rapture seemed to descend on the 1,000-odd souls, some at cabaret tables, some in the galleries, but a great crowd standing. The Roundhouse is far bigger inside than it looks from the street – as big, almost, at the Albert Hall – and the disposition of platform and audience, the lack of clutter between the columns, revealed the place in its full rotary splendour. The occasion was, indeed, very like a BBC Prom, and made one feel that that institution should reclaim the space forthwith. Late-night Proms here would be as though the Albert Hall, gone modular, had merely been adjusted slightly, with a funkier approach to lighting.
Club light provided a lurid yet never irritating backdrop for the youthful, remarkably large orchestra in the smokily darkened hall. When it began the first item, Xenakis’s eight-minute, rawly and grandly dissonant Metastasis, I felt that music had gained a new excitement out of the blue. Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra, receiving its European premiere with a doughty soloist in Joby Burgess, certainly showed there’s a lot one can do with, and to, such an instrument, here slung on a serious wrought-iron frame; and the accompaniment had a pleasant, mostly motoric efficiency. He wanted, he says in the video, to reflect the prevalence in everyday life of those kick-drum thuds one hears coming out of cars and house everywhere; but Thomas Adès did this more subtly 15 years ago in Asyla.
Claude Vivier’s exotically coloured, large-orchestral Orion, dating from 1979 and a piece on the cusp between Messiaen’s manner and French “spectralism”, made a powerful statement. But best of all, for me, were the 10 minutes allocated to Stockhausen’s Elektronische Studie I. Emitted from giant speakers into the resounding dome, this quintessence of modernity (though created back in 1953) seemed to find its natural occasion here. The horizontal unfolding turns mysteriously into vertical space, as though one looked at a vast, planetarium-like picture, and there is no sense of ending.
Electronic music of another sort – DJ sets by Lannoy, then Prokofiev – filled the intervals, and a good time was surely had by all. It was striking that these were not the usual faces seen at many a modern-music event, but satisfying that what was on offer shouldn’t, after all, be so far removed from standard classical procedure: the overture-concerto-symphony pattern that may be a kind of archetype, unsupplantable but beautiful.
Spitalfields Music Winter Festival
Richard Morrison, The Times
Wednesday 14 December 2011
Some people can’t see a mountain without wanting to climb it. The players of Hugh Brunt’s terrific London Contemporary Orchestra give me a similar impression: that they are game for any avant-garde musical challenge, the tougher and craggier the better.
Opening what looks like being ten days of dizzying eclecticism at the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival in East London, the young players tackled not one daunting mountain but three — the second never scaled before. This was Martin Suckling’s Violin Concerto, commissioned by London Music Masters (via an ingenious “buy a bar” fundraising campaign) for the fine Polish fiddler Agata Szymczewska, who tore into its fiendish challenges with huge energy and technical resource. The piece is titled De sol y grana — a reference to a Machado poem in which the poet compares his songs to bubbles glinting scarlet in the sunlight. Here the bubbles become musical segments, nine of them, some languorous or even lugubrious, others violently eruptive.
Rather than being the dominant force, the soloist is first among equals, fizzing in and out of weirdly imagined string and wind textures that are sometimes soured by quarter-tones. Disconcertingly, Suckling is fond of piling up disparate ideas or layers, then moving on. Yet, under trills or quivering oscillations from the soloist, the strands are finally gathered into a superb finish: a birdsong-like crescendo of ecstasy.
There was more virtuosity later, in Gérard Grisey’s magnum opus Vortex Temporum. A spectral-music pioneer who died in 1998, Grisey wasn’t the best advocate of his own pieces. It’s wisest to ignore his programme notes, with their mind-numbing references to “stretched disharmonics” and “sinusoidal waves” and simply let the music — volcanic, clangorous, hypnotic, nightmarish or eerie — assail or seduce you. The pianist Antoine Françoise, required to deliver fistfuls of notes (or sometimes simply to slam his fists on the keys) was rightly acclaimed at the end. But under Brunt’s immaculate direction the entire ensemble was heroic.
And I am delighted, too, that this rising new generation is rediscovering the soundworld of Claude Vivier. His Bali-inspired Pulau Dewata — hard, percussive, jangling refrains organised according to ancient modes — was a reminder of what a genius the world lost when the Canadian was brutally murdered in 1983 at the age of 34.
Hugo Shirley, The Telegraph
Tuesday 13 December 2011
There might have been mince pies in the interval of the first evening concert of the 10-day Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, but there was nothing cosy about this bracing programme of music in Shoreditch Church by Claude Vivier, Martin Suckling and Gérard Grisey, performed by the fiercely bright young things of the London Contemporary Orchestra under conductor Hugh Brunt.
Suckling’s de sol y grana, a violin concerto commissioned by the music charity London Music Masters, was here receiving its first performance. It was inspired by Antonio Machado’s poem, in which songs become bubbles, floating away on delicate, short-lived trajectories, refracting colours as they go. It’s a delicate little conceit, but one that gives little hint of the sometimes forceful nature of the work.
Its opening section was tautly controlled and powerful, soloist Agata Szymczewska dispatching volleys of notes with concentrated virtuosity against a feverish orchestral backdrop.
The technique and imagination on show throughout Suckling’s score was enormously impressive, but the piece was most memorable in the later sections. An elegiac strings-only passage, played in heavy, long bows, made way for a brief, unexpectedly moving duet, Szymczewska’s trills flitting playfully above a melancholy bass flute line. A tense build-up, with the violin increasingly insistent, led to the work’s throwaway conclusion – a final bubble gently popping, one imagined.
Suckling’s new work seemed a great deal more composerly than the other works on the programme. But it worked well after the rhythmic insistence of Vivier’s Bali-inspired Pulau Dewata, which, scored for “variable ensemble”, was here shared between violin, cello, percussion and piano. Brunt drove the rhythms hard, and the vibraphone-and-piano textures often seemed more reminiscent of urban frenzy than an exotic island. Leavened by occasional lyricism, though, Vivier’s recurrent patterns were hypnotic but never numbing.
The arpeggios of Grisey’s remarkable Vortex Temporum swirled hypnotically after the interval, too, but the Frenchman also allows himself daring amounts of time and space in this longer work. There’s a formidable solo for the subtly detuned piano (dealt with magnificently by Antoine Françoise), as well as clock-stopping spectral experimentation elsewhere. Brunt controlled it all brilliantly, and his players excelled themselves.
Belle and Sebastian & LCO at The Sage Gateshead
Dave Simpson, The Guardian
Tuesday 7 December 2010
“Beefed up by an orchestra, the Glaswegian metamorphosed from shrinking violets to all-round entertainers.”
Belle and Sebastian used to play so quietly that a rustling crisp packet could be louder than the band, perhaps because they wished to avoid the aural havoc that cranked-up rock PA systems could wreak on their painstaking creations. How they must have fantasised about gigs like this. Augmenting the band’s usual violin, trumpet and recorder combination, the London Contemporary Orchestra are on hand to give their songs the kind of backing they deserve, while the soundsystem is so clear you can hear singer Stuart Murdoch’s titters even with everything at hefty volume.
The Glasgow combo have been called “the Smiths for the generation that came after Morrissey and Marr”. However, the lush orchestral backing underlines how much their songs are informed by older, classic pop: the mix of guitar twangs, shuffling grooves, parping brass and sumptuous strings sounding like a glorious mix of Bob Dylan, Donovan, the Velvet Underground, Abba, Burt Bacharach and Motown, with a bit of Mozart.
Murdoch, meanwhile, is modern pop’s answer to Philip Larkin. Alternately pithy and profound, he sings of the rubbishness of life but the even greater rubbishness of dying, mixing sensitivity with sauce. The Fox in the Snow (restored to the set for climatic reasons) is a straightforwardly emotional song about a creature struggling to feed itself in the cold. But if their fey, shrinking-violet reputation ever was justified, it should have surely been demolished by the likes of If You’re Feeling Sinister, which finds the dapper, scarf-wearing Scotsman singing of a girl into S&M and Bible studies, who finds her interests taken advantage of when “the vicar, or whatever, took her to one side and gave her confirmation”.
A wonderful gig sees the once archetypal indie cool band unexpectedly become all-round entertainers, as classical pop nestles alongside comedy, theatre and audience participation. Murdoch runs around the crowd and gets a lady in the audience to apply mascara to his face, mid-song, to illustrate a lyric. Meanwhile, the absorbing set rollercoasts from new classic I Didn’t See It Coming to the perennial The Boy with the Arab Strap, a sublime anthem referencing a sexual device for maintaining an erection. As the orchestra claps along, Murdoch invites crowd members to dance on stage and gives each a medal reading, “I made it with Belle and Sebastian.” With perfect comic timing, he adds, “Not in a rude way, you understand.”
Frank Zappa’s ‘The Yellow Shark’ at the Roundhouse
Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph
Wednesday 10 November 2010
“With the evening’s main event, a performance of Zappa’s orchestral album The Yellow Shark, the orchestra and its conductor, Hugh Brunt, came alive. This medley of pieces for a large, hard-edged, brass- and percussion-heavy ensemble was originally made by Zappa for the crack German Ensemble Modern. Much of the material was originally created on a digital keyboard, and has fearsomely complex rhythms. But Zappa insisted on what he called “style”, a personal imprint, as well as hair-trigger accuracy.
Some players impressed on both counts. Oboist Anna Turmeau produced a heroically big sound on the track Times Beach II, and pianists Antoine Françoise and Chris Hopkins made the Stockhausen-like musings of Ruth is Sleeping seem purposeful and musical. The hugely difficult modernist sections, such as Questi Cazzi di Piccione, were impressively carried off, and the more satirical sections, such as Be-Bop Tango, had plenty of snarl and swagger.”
Steve Lomas, Classical Source
Friday 12 November 2010
“The glistening curlicues and tendrils of the Boulez homage The Girl in the Magnesium Dress were quite overwhelming in their cumulative effect. Gentle amplification brought out the inner workings of the wind and string quintet segments, including a blistering Questi Cazzi di Piccione which easily trumped Ensemble Modern’s version in its sheer unreasonableness. The committed direction of LCO artistic director and principal conductor Hugh Brunt drew dynamic performances throughout from the mainly young players and the closing G-Spot Tornado brought the house down, as intended.”
Foals ‘Spanish Sahara’ feat. LCO
Pete Cashmore, The Guardian
Saturday 18 September 2010
You probably know this one already, either from its appearance in the trailers for Entourage or the weird, glaciers-and-black-seas-and-animal-carcasses video. By turns fragile to the point of snapping, and then massing into a vast oceanic swell of deafening balls-outery, it is faultlessly deft in its tension-and-release dynamic and has been beefed up to even greater thunder by the presence of the London Contemporary Orchestra. And how painful a couplet is “And I see you lying there/Like a Li-lo losing air”? Awesome. Right, now let’s slag some stuff off…
Spitalfields Music Summer Festival
Geoff Brown, The Times
Tuesday 29 June 2010
“The furious panache of the LCO’s performance, expertly channelled by the conductor Hugh Brunt, was overwhelming.”
Imagine that you’re fairly short, wearing a long dress and holding a precious violin. Would you want to reach the raised performance platform by jumping? Full marks, then, to Charlotte Bonneton, a soloist in this Spitalfields Festival concert, for never coming a cropper – and for playing with such gusto, though that was a mark of everyone in the London Contemporary Orchestra, dedicated to the new, the recent, and the cross-cultural.
The culture crossed here was film, represented by the Brothers Quay, those unique purveyors of puppet animation puzzles bedecked with more vintage European angst, more decrepit dolls and gizmos, than is really good for sanity. We saw their masterly Street of Crocodiles from 1983, sprung from a story by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz.
The cries and whispers of Lech Jankowski’s score and Larry Sider’s sound design were expanded by a live string trio and piano. But the Quays’ imaginings took such a hold that the players’ haunting bits and bobs quickly sank into the general mix – the best artistic outcome possible. Even the funky venue seemed part of the film: part disused viaduct, part abandoned warehouse, with four decommissioned Tube carriages perched on the roof.
More East European modernism arrived with the disjointed style games of Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No 1. Bonneton and her violin colleague Daniel Pioro fiddled their fingers almost to the bone, while prepared piano, harpsichord and strings plinked out sad melodic fragments. The furious panache of the LCO’s performance, expertly channelled by the conductor Hugh Brunt, was overwhelming.
European surrealism vanished for the tremolos, buzzes, and flying melodies of Zipangu by the gifted French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier, who was murdered in Paris in 1983 at the age of 34. Frenzied patches suggested improvisation. But no: Brunt’s conducting of every bar, from the opening buzzing bass line to the sudden consonant end assertive, was graceful, just like the music. Wonderful.
Reverb at the Roundhouse
Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph
Friday 29 January 2010
Watch out London Sinfonietta and Nash Ensemble – there’s a new kid on the block. It’s the London Contemporary Orchestra, young, keen as mustard, and able to field extravagantly large numbers of players to tackle determinedly left-field programmes – with a bit of help from Facebook and Twitter, which facilitated a last-minute appeal for extra players for John Cage’s last piece Seventy-Four, which needs 74 players.
The smiling musical anarchist Cage died in 1992, which, I imagine, is before some of those players on the Roundhouse stage were born. The audience seemed much the same. So what drew them in such amazing numbers? The ambience of the Roundhouse certainly helps, with its screens above with close-up views of the players, and the whole domed space swimming in psychedelic red and blue light. But it was surely the programme that worked the magic. It was a brilliantly contrived mix that delivered coolness, daring experimentalism, classic high-seriousness and cosmic spiritualism, all at once.