A blog on gigs, music, art and London.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

London Sinfonietta, Varèse 360 (1), Ether Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall

The opportunity to totally immerse yourself in one of the excellent festivals organised by the South Bank Centre is an experience I always find very rewarding and satisfying (most recently the case with the year long festival to celebrate the centenary of Olivier Messiaen). Therefore, I greeted the beginning of the Ether Festival this week with a high level of anticipation.

As part of this year's festival the complete works of pioneering composer Edgard Varèse was to be performed over the course of a weekend. I was at the QEH on Friday to catch the first of the three planned concerts. 

The excellent London Sinfonietta were performing and they opened up with 'Ionisation', a succinct, heterogenous piece of percussion which sounded almost mechanical in timbre. Some of Varèse's trademark siren wails provided an extra dimension. The scientific inferences of the title reflect the precise, ambitious sound of the piece and the notes in the programme talked of the "pounding industrial soundscapes". It was an accurate description, although this suggested a contemporary sound, whereas I thought they seemed to be soundscapes from an unplacable, distant era. 

The abbreviated, insistent solo flute of 'Density 21.5' soon followed. The organised bursts of sound of 'Dance For Burgess' was performed next and displayed yet more in the way enjoyable, refreshing brevity (a theme that would reappear throughout the concert). 'Ecuatorial' was the final piece played before the interval, and proved a complex, striking assembling of brass, percussion, piano and vocals. A brilliant, condensed orchestral horizon.

'Étude pour Espace' opened the second half and was a vast and varied collage of aggregated choral and orchestral sounds. 'Déserts' closed the concert and was by some distance the longest piece of the evening. It presented itself as a series of deconstructed, miniature sound-worlds where intricate orchestral episodes were brilliantly aligned alongside stark, distorted electronic tape reels (the first piece tonight to explicitly feature his experimentation with early electronic music). Abstract visual imagery was simultaneously projected on to three large rectangular screens on the QEH stage and walls. The video began with what appeared to be dark, mysterious sub-tidal motions. These were gradually replaced by images suggesting vapour-trailed skylines, finally ending with still, blurred quasi-alien landscapes. Very atmospheric. 

The music was unashamedly cerebral but never cold and seemed to show Varèse to be more accessible than some of his twentieth century contemporaries such as Xenakis, Stockhausen etc. 

An excellent start to the series.

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