Vale of Glamorgan Festival: Opening Gala Evening, Ensemble MidtVest, Quatuor Tana

The first of two reports by Steph Power from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2014. Her second will appear in a further edition of Wales Arts Review.

Gala Opening Evening, Penarth Pier Pavilion, 8 May 2014
Ensemble MidtVest, Dyffyn House, St Nicholas, 9 May 2014
Ensemble MidtVest, Norwegian Church Arts Centre, Cardiff Bay, 10 May 2014
Quatuor Tana, Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 14 May 2014

As longstanding Wales Arts Review readers might remember, the annual Vale of Glamorgan Festival has, since 1992, focused exclusively on the music of living composers. This year was intended to be no exception; Artistic Director John Metcalf had hoped to mark the 70th birthday of John Tavener as one of two featured composers for 2014. Sadly, in the event, Tavener did not live to see that anniversary, nor join the Grammy-nominated Tarik O’Regan and the many other composers attending this year, as he finally succumbed to a long illness last November. A poignant retrospective ensued, but one with an appropriate air of celebration; not least, in part due to the opportunity to explore Tavener’s work through the lens of other composers – O’Regan included – who have been touched by his music and consider it an influence on their own.

One of the many strengths of the Vale Festival is its balancing of breadth and depth; the presentation of music by a wide range of composers both familiar and less well known, local and international, alongside a deeper exploration of the featured composers’ work. That this is offered over such a wide range of genres is even more impressive; from tiny solo miniatures to vast, lengthy scores for orchestra and/or chorus; from established repertoire to premières and new commissions, the festival is itself something to celebrate. Crucially, it places contemporary Welsh music within a vibrant international context, and looks to the future as much as to the present and the recent past.

Clare Hammond photo by Julie Kim
Clare Hammond
photo by Julie Kim

In that spirit, it was fitting that the festival’s Opening Gala Evening at Penarth Pier (May 8) focused on O’Regan and a selection of less well-known peers rather than Tavener, who by now needs no such introduction. The first half of the evening comprised short performances by three top musicians due to feature in the coming days, as part of a general welcome to the festival. Between them, they performed three enticing works by O’Regan. Stewart French gave us a taster of the Celtic- and Arabic-drenched solo guitar part of Accallam na Senórach: an Irish Colloquy, due to be given its UK première on May 15 (reviewed by Cath Barton); pianist Clare Hammond played his Three Piano Miniatures alongside Robin Walker’s rather too Debussy-esque Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep, before accompanying soprano Sarah Dacey in My House I Say of 2012, the most recent of the O’Regan works. There was much to enjoy – and to look forward to – with the addition of a real gem in the form of a world première from a composer closer to home: Cardiff-based Robert Fokkens’ charming and impeccably paced Worry/Don’t Worry, ‘a short meditation on concern’, which was performed with witty panache by the same duo.


Ensemble Midtvest photo by Nikolaj Lund
Ensemble Midtvest
photo by Nikolaj Lund

The second half of the concert was an opportunity to meet Danish composer Peter Bruun, who talked us through a performance of his The Green Groves for chamber ensemble, ahead of its official UK première the following evening. This was fun and enlightening – and a great opportunity  for those unfamiliar with the process to see a composer liaising ‘hands-on’ with an ensemble. But it was that subsequent concert at Dyffryn House (May 9) which really saw the piece brought to life by its commissioners, the superb Ensemble MidtVest. Based in Denmark, and acclaimed for previous Vale appearances, the ensemble has a deserved reputation for youthful dynamism and a dedication to excellence. That combination with Bruun’s disarmingly self-described ‘naïve’ music was a winning one – and Bruun’s fairy-tale text (by Ursula Andkjær Olsen) was an intriguing reminder of another Dane’s, Hans Christan Andersen’s, penchant for dark, often gruesome folk stories dressed in light, nippy guise.

Over five movements, and based on a memorable folk-like tune, Bruun painted the story of a young woman who falls asleep in the forest, dreams about a bird who offers her riches in return for the life of her unborn child, and who awakens to realise, with horror, that she has lost the child. Full of vivid textures that thickened and thinned by turn, the work combined rhythmic elongation and compression with unusual chord spacing to great effect – though I wish Bruun had resisted the urge for Psycho-like stabbing chords and a too-dominant high piccolo towards the close.

It was in this first concert ‘proper’ of the festival that Tavener was introduced, with a thoughtful rendition of his Little Missendom Calm (1984). From the venue’s balcony, oboe, clarinet and bassoon revolved harmonically together around a stately horn melody in simple two-bar phrases. It is a short and elegant piece, and was beautifully framed here by the UK première of Hans Abrahamsen’s alluring new arrangement of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and George Crumb’s wonderfully evocative Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale); a model of literal image-painting that yet manages to retain a wholly flowing and natural, abstract quality (how fantastic it would be to hear Crumb’s music explored in depth in a future Vale Festival!).

Abrahamsen is, of course, a leading Danish composer, and is well-known internationally as an initiator of ‘New Simplicity’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, gradually evolving to a more overtly neo-romantic style. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was his Ten Preludes for String Quartet (1973) that proved the high point of the evening – though this substantial work showed how rarely any label captures the live experiencing of a piece; here, with Abrahamsen’s fast-switching, expressive contrasts of mood via thrumming drones, syncopated, melodic fragments and far, far more. That the direct Baroque pastiche of the final prelude came as such a superb jolt indicated how unique and absorbing Abrahamsen’s soundworld is.


But pieces don’t (usually) play themselves, and Ensemble MidtVest must be congratulated on the sheer commitment and vitality of their performances, which no amount of rehearsal can guarantee. It was a delight to hear members of the ensemble once again the following lunchtime (May 10) at Cardiff Bay’s Norwegian Church Arts Centre – and opening with such a tour de force for solo clarinet: Jörg Widmann’s short but highly impactful Fantasie (1993). Widmann himself is a virtuoso clarinettist and this was a wild and fluid ride through jazz-tinged lightheartedness and modernist aggression, brilliantly played by Tommaso Lonquich. The contrast in style of this with the other two solo instrumental pieces of the concert was marked. O’Regan’s Diomedes (2009) for piano had intriguing contrasts of its own, however, unwinding from a gently melodic start to a slow, almost tripping, walking figure. There was resonance aplenty in the writing here, but it felt to me that pianist Martin Qvist Hansen struggled somewhat with the art centre’s instrument in trying to realise that fullness of sound.

There were no such concerns in Tavener’s Song for Ileana (1988), for solo alto flute. Written for flautist Ileana Ruhemann, the poetic quotation which heads the work indicates its elegiac character: ‘Wherever I travel Greece wounds me’ (Seferis). Here, Charlotte Norholt brought out the music’s folk-like qualities, both intimate and suggestive of wider landscapes, with playing that was sensitive as well as full-toned. She and ‘cellist Jonathan Slaatto had already combined this lunchtime, for the first of two further UK premières from Bruun, here evocative of a landscape in southern Spain and named for its local mountain: Mojácar la Vieja (2011). The ‘ever-changing colours’ Bruun refers to in his programme note were certainly realised in this lyrical performance, from delicate cello pizzicato to a shared rocking theme and some lovely microtonal passages.

However, Bruun’s next piece, a string trio entitled The Black Waters (2012), was the stronger of the two, with its underlying depths and hints of a darker character which fully suited the composer’s combining of violin, viola and cello – in what can be a very tricky combination to write for. The alternately stopped and open strings of the beginning, the use of ambiguous major and minor thirds and the fresh, melodic overall feel added up to a most intriguing piece which I would very much like to hear again.

The last piece on the programme can, thankfully be heard any time, albeit on CD (recorded by the Calefax Reed Quintet). This was Abrahamsen’s 1978 wind quintet Walden; another substantial and thought-provoking piece. Consisting of four movements, the title – and indeed the pared-down content – alludes to Thoreau’s novel of 1854, in which the writer-philosopher described two years of living in a forest, attempting to ‘strip away all the artificial needs imposed by society and rediscover man’s lost unity with nature’ to quote the programme note. The resonances with Abrahamsen’s own striving for a new musical simplicity are clear – and were beautifully realised here with playing of great intensity and pure, uncluttered lines, which were yet never divorced from a warmth or engagement with the material. It was a fitting culmination to two excellent concerts by Ensemble MidtVest.


Quatour Tana
Quatour Tana

My next visit to the Vale Festival was for another lunchtime concert; this time by the fantastic Belgium-based string quartet Quatuor Tana (at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, May 14), here making their UK debut. 2014 is an historic year for quartets specialising in new music, with the world-renowned – and totally contrasting – Arditti and Kronos Quartets both celebrating 40th birthdays. Quatuor Tana were formed in 2010 and represent a new generation of superb young players. I have no doubt, from this enthralling performance, that they will go on to echo the achievements of those distinguished forebears. Indeed, they are already doing so, with critically-acclaimed performances at a host of festivals across Europe to date.

The quartet’s starting point here in Cardiff was deceptively innocuous, in Tavener’s tiny but powerful two-minute long Ikon of Joy and Sorrow (1999); the briefest of essays into the Orthodox composer’s famous desire to portray musical ‘icons in sound’ as gateways to the divine. The ambience was thoughtful, and Quatuor Tana’s stunningly controlled sound was suggestive of further, latent capabilities. The other miniature of the programme came with a lighter, jauntier flavour: O’Regan’s new piece for solo violin, Alice Changes (2014), was written for Thomas Gould and premiered by him on just March 30th. Here, the inspiration – if not the style directly – came from jazz (as you might expect for a piece premièred at Ronnie Scott’s), in the form of a series of figurations spun with increasing intricacy over the ‘same underlying chord progression [as] found in Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice”’. Tuneful double-stopping and a pizzicato/arco question and answer gave way to an engagingly meandering melody, with an eventual flourish to end.

In between these twin homages to the featured composers of the festival, the quartet presented two UK premieres by Belgian composers. First came “Tuor Qua Tuor” (2008) by the 51 year-old composer, conductor and cellist Jean-Paul Dessy; akin to Tavener, but in his own way, an ardent proponent of music of all forms as a vehicle for sacred expression. As far as I understood first-violinist Antoine Maisonhaute, who did his best to explain it ahead of the quartet’s performance, the work’s title was a play on ‘Quatuor’; ‘tuor’ also meaning ‘sight’ in Latin, and referring to the work’s invitation for us to address our inner being, to ‘see’ as it were, ‘what we cannot see but only feel’. Certainly the air was of ethereal calm and introspection, with waves of repeated melodic fragments, glissandi and harmonics offering a kind of sonic balm in extension of the opening Tavener.

Beguiling though this was, the astonishing String Quartet No. 2, Summer Dreams (1994), by Philippe Boesman proved by far the profounder piece – to my ears at least. Here is a composer of real depth and stature, as well as quixotic invention. Cast in seven ‘dreams’, to say that Boesman’s quartet is teeming with extraordinary virtuosic effects is true, and yet totally inadequate to describe the brilliance and subtlety of his design. Bursts of sound alternate with sweet, tremulous melodies, delicate bird-like flittings turn to brief, impassioned dialogues, and throughout, there is the sense of a quartet unleashed and yet wholly together; chasing their own and each others’ tail without ever scattering or breaking apart. Fabulous music, fabulously played: a music of gestures that really do add up to something meaningful. But meaning what, you might ask? Well, perhaps that’s not really definable, nor even important beyond the sounds themselves – except to say that the dream and the nightmare were both thrillingly present.