Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Sinfonia Student review - At Lunch Three

Sinfonia Student Helen shares her experience of our At Lunch Three performance that took place in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on Tuesday 23 February...

Having never heard the combination of flute, viola and harp before – as well as being an enthusiastic Debussy fan – I was particularly looking forward to yesterday’s At Lunch concert with Britten Sinfonia. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t disappoint: the programme provided a fascinating and varied exploration of instrumental texture and colour, masterfully performed by Emer McDonough (flute), Clare Finnimore (viola), and Lucy Wakeford (harp). The blending of these three instruments created an extraordinary atmosphere in West Road Concert Hall – the perfect form of escapism in the middle of a busy day.

The concert opened and closed with works by Debussy, which gave an attractive symmetry to the programme. McDonough’s performance of Syrinx immediately drew us into the sound of the flute. Syrinx is a pivotal piece in the flute’s repertoire and one I have heard performed several times, but never quite like this: McDonough combined hauntingly lyrical melodic lines with delicate, acrobatic phrases in an almost hypnotic fashion, featuring moments of extremely soft dynamic which filled the vast space of the concert hall with remarkable ease. It was a breath-taking – if slightly eerie – insight into the range of colours the flute has to offer.

Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason 
(c) Samantha West
The flute was joined by the viola and harp for the next two items. As well as introducing me to a new combination of instruments, this section of the programme also exposed me to the music of Takemitsu and Daníel Bjarnason, two composers I had barely encountered before. In fact, I have discovered something new at each of the Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch concerts this year, which is one of my favourite aspects of the series. Both pieces draw upon mosaic-like processes, resulting in fluid and fragmented textures in which short melodic ideas pass between the three instruments. In the Takemitsu, I particularly enjoyed the occasional moments where these fragmented parts converged onto a more unified triad or melodic line. What really stood out here was the blending of the viola and flute: I was not expecting two such different instruments to combine into such a homogenous timbre. These two instruments often seemed to work as a pair against the harp; Bjarnason particularly exploits this texture in the second section of Parallel, in which the flute and viola, playing sustained chords beneath a prominent moving part in the harp, gradually shift from the background of the texture to the foreground, capturing the listener’s attention as the harp slips away. Such subtle changes in texture always occurred seamlessly and organically, due to the carefully balanced and sensitive playing of the performers.

Next, the programme focused exclusively on the sound of the harp, with a performance of Donatoni’s Marches by Lucy Wakeford. This piece brought yet another new discovery: I had not previously appreciated the versatility of the harp as a solo instrument. Marches was a true showcase of harp technique, displaying a virtuosic range of sounds, colours and dynamic extremes; like Syrinx, the quietest moments of Marches were particularly captivating. I enjoyed the occasional jazzy harmonies emerging from the texture, which was again built from very fragmentary material – a clear preoccupation of this programme.

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp provided a return to the Syrinx sound-world for the end of the concert. The piece generally featured more homogenous textures than the other works, exploring yet more textural possibilities of this combination of instruments. Indeed, what most struck me about this piece was the fact that there was never a sense of one ‘solo’ instrument being accompanied by the others, as might be expected from a sonata model. The three performers participated equally and, despite their differences, no instrument seemed out of place. The remarkable cohesion of the performance has encouraged me to consider other instrumental combinations that might provide unexpected unity. Like so many Britten Sinfonia concerts, At Lunch Three demonstrated the benefits of thinking outside of the musical box.

Helen McKeown (Sinfonia Student 2015-16)

Don't miss At Lunch Four - featuring Schumann's Piano Quartet and a new work by Bryce Dessner - Norwich 8 April, Cambridge 12 April, London 13 April. More details.

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