live review // Michael Harrison Concert for New Music Sunday Series
words // Will Crosby

Kettle’s Yard – February 16th

Those not residing in Cambridge seem to live under the dissolution, just as I did some 5 years ago, that the city is some sort of cultural hubbub; glistening with emerging and forward-thinking artists, alive with tantalising creatives, and home to plenty of venues and events in which to showcase this artistry.

However, this is not completely the case. As a prospective student I was excited to be studying Classical music in such a city, assuring myself that outside of the capital it truly was the best place to be to soak up the rich musical tapestry I was there to study.

Yet, since living in and indulging in Cambridge I’ve noticed that the Classical concerts on offer seem very much rooted in just that, the ‘classics’. Excepting one Charles Ives concert last year, the sprinkling of concerts during ‘The Festival of Ideas’, and the concerts I myself take part in as part of the Anglia Ruskin Orchestra and Chorus, there seems to be nothing displaying some of the more adventurous works of the 20th and 21st Century.

Imagine my delight when Kettle’s Yard announced their latest series of ‘The Sunday Concerts’, dedicated to showcasing “New Music in Cambridge”. Fittingly on what must be the first sunny Cambridge day since September I eagerly arrived at Kettle’s Yard where I was greeted by the prim and proper offer of, not tea, but a cup of coffee, which I take black, of course.

The venue itself, a small gallery I hear referred to as ‘The Office’, is completely fully booked. This, the second in the current series of concerts is dedicated to the memory, life, and work of Michael Harrison, the late Director at Kettle’s Yard the compositions were created by New Music Associates that he appointed while at Kettle’s Yard. Complete with a white sheet covered sofa (one can only presume is reserved for the elite, or rather, latecomers), the room is engulfed with partially tiered seating, literally occupying every possible crevice of the space, leaving no corner or alcove chair-free.

I sit, front row, with the keyboard clearly in view, about to be brought to life by the pianist’s hand. The eyes of other patrons seemingly filled with envy as I am fortunate enough to have secured what I, and evidently they, believe to be the best seat in the house, or “office” . . . Their eyes, apparently questioning the drainpipe and denim jacket clad matchstick of a man currently disturbing the wash of beige and tweed.

Temporarily distracting my attentions to these glances is my observing of the piano’s placement in the room. It appears to be some two inches skewed from being straight; leaving me pondering the subliminal possibilities of a clever clerk, or simply the carelessness of the gallery’s staff. However, I must remind you, and myself, today’s concert is completely full. Before the music even begins this is already an achievement, a great success amongst Cambridge dwindling but thankfully still burning cultural wick.

After a brief introduction from the curators, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, and pianist Mark Knoop take to the stage. What follows is truly inspiring.

Beginning with four Refrains, scored for both instruments, a mood is immediately set. The first two, composed by Mark Bowden and Anna Meredith respectively, have a similar style; both displaying the slow, simple, and light character of a more-tonal Messiaen, played at half tempo. The cello swoons over low piano drones, penetrated with the occasional dainty chord in the upper reaches of the keyboard’s range. Despite the very occasional slip in intonation it is a confident and considered open to the concert, conjuring images of a epically romantic and overblown end to a film.

The third Refrain, by Charlie Piper, demonstrates daring and technically demanding textures, glittering and dancing around the space. While, Christopher Mayo’s Refrain 4’s extended use of harmonics could have been an equally wonderful work, though the occasional slip in intonation did make this audience member slightly uncomfortable through its performance.

It is at this point the concert takes a sudden shift. The opening four pieces have settled the audience, leaving us deep in thought and very calm, however as Knoop leaves the stage, Lukoszevieze readies himself for the following two pieces for cello solo, IMMH by Kenneth Hesketh, and John Woolrich’s In Unknown Country, and the energy in the room alters.

Lukoszevieze suddenly attacks the first notes of IMMH. This piece, the concert’s highlight for this reviewer, is effectively a box of tricks, demonstrating the true capabilities of the instrument. Hesketh evidently knows the instrument well, making use of harmonics, striking of the body and strings, truly pushing the boundaries of the dynamic range of the instrument; there are very few things as truly invigorating as seeing a cellist truly wield their skill. The quasi-Russian undertones and virtuosity of IMMH are greatly contrasted with In Unknown Country, whose slower and more calm character allows the mood to relax, still on a comedown from the excitement of the previous piece. In Unknown Country’s Romantic contours pass all too quickly for this reviewer, such was the intensity of its predecessor I am unable to truly immerse myself in its soundworld.

Knoop returns to the stage, and Lukoszevieze makes way, residing perched on the edge of the stage, for it is his piece for solo piano, What we really want to do is serve happiness which follows. Based on the rhythmic content from sentence to which it owes its name the piece is a gentle chord cycle, slowly developing from partially dissonant clusters to more rich and triadic chordal motifs. Making use of the piano’s lower register the piece vaguely trots along, never really leaving its comfort zone or pushing the ear in any particular direction. This is not to dismiss the piece however, the chord construction and rhythmic cells are intriguing enough, and any form of diversion from the established mood would serve only to distract from the processes being displayed.

Again, the performers exchanges positions. Richard Baker’s Crossing Stones (after Richard Long) for cello solo is an aural and tactile assault. Its unrelenting volume and presence causes the ground to vibrate, causing the audience to feel every bow, every glissandi, impossible to even hear one’s own thoughts such is the power of this composition. Major scales leads us into familiar and comforting territory before submerging us back to the depths of a-tonality, with the melody, always accompanied with a lower open string drone, pushing the upper limits of the cello’s register. When the piece climaxes and suddenly finishes there is a deathly pause among the audience, which while only lasts a fraction of a moment, feels like an eternity.

The final piece, In memoriam Michael Harrison is scored for cello, piano, and audience. We are invited to hum along a drone, given a choice of two notes. Tentatively the audience oblige and once the texture is realised the two begin. Knoop has prepared his piano, seemingly placing unknown materials between the strings and spends the entire piece bent over inside the piano, plucking the strings and caressing its echoing contours. The cello sings above both the piano and the audience, and when the piece dissolves to a gentle end the audience collectively fade out.

After a lengthy round of applause a handful of today’s composers enter the stage from the audience to take a bow. After a brief thank you the audience return to their previous state, I feel their stares and sense the awkwardness as they make a slow but determined gate for the exit.

I leave daintily, carefully considering my every stride and glance. However, I am satisfied, elated, truly excited for the rest of the series, and above all, encouraged.

For more information on the New Music Sunday Series visit here