BWW Reviews: ADELAIDE FESTIVAL 2015. GAVIN BRYARS ENSEMBLE Gave A Subdued Evening in Elder Hall.

Reviewed by Ray Smith, Tuesday 3rd March 2015

Highly respected English composer Gavin Bryars is Composer in Residence for the 2015 Adelaide Festival and deservedly so. The concept of a Composer in Residence during the period of the Festival is a brilliant one and should be standard practice as it allows audiences, and musicians for that matter, to experience the mind and processes of a contemporary composer in a way that goes so much deeper than attending a performance of a single piece.

Bryars is presenting three consecutive evenings of works on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of March at Elder Hall in the University of Adelaide with his Gavin Bryars Ensemble. The first of these concerts featured his own ensemble and he describes the members as, "... my friends as well as close colleagues, whose musical characters I know and love." One assumes that he's quite keen on their remarkable musical skills as well since they are all superb performers.

James Woodrow's control of an electric guitar is an education to witness. Careful manipulation of a swell (volume) pedal allows him to create sounds without any hint of 'attack'. The technique, known as 'violining' had his perfectly timed notes 'appear' from silence, and subtly swell into existence. The effect was very reminiscent of the Fripp/Eno collaborations and gently pushed its way into prominence through the clouds of soft strings.

Morgan Goff, on viola, and Nick Cooper, on 'cello, are masters of their crafts, and work together seamlessly, offering Bryars' often complex harmonies with great precision.

Soprano, Peyee Chen, possesses a voice that the very Gods would applaud and she is not afraid to use it. Her extraordinary purity of tone joined Woodrow's eerie guitar work so perfectly that it was at times difficult to distinguish one from the other. She can produce a whisper that sends shivers up the spine, or a crescendo that threatened the very timbers of the Elder Hall roof, at a whim.

The Tenor, John Potter, looked for all the world like a bank manager, a genial man of middle years with a charming smile and disarming manner. Then he sang. What a voice. It rang like a bell and fluttered like a falling leaf. He is a compelling and engaging singer.

Gavin Bryars himself conducted from the double bass. His towering figure dwarfing the instrument, he directed like a father figure, gentle and supportive but insistent, benevolent but very much in control.

This was obviously a very serious ensemble indeed, a group of extraordinary musicians on a single and shared mission. The programme however was less than engaging.

The first part of the programme featured five pieces that were quite slow and deliberate. Each piece an individual work but closely allied to the others. I exhaled mightily at the end of Lauda Dolce 1, I held my breath during Lauda 4 Oi me lasso as the strength of the singers became evident. The following three pieces were so similar that, while I forgot what piece was what, I was still engaged. A few members of the audience had nodded off.

We returned for the second half to find a number of seats that had been occupied, now vacant.
The Lauda continued. More people nodded off.

The Irish Madrigals heralded the addition to the ensemble of Imants Larsens on second viola but I fear it was too late. Those members of the audience that weren't already asleep were fidgeting and checking their watches.

Everything we had listened to was slow. Very, very slow. It became impossible to tell whether a new piece had started or not and we had stopped caring, we just wanted it to end. As my guest, and highly respected jazz musician, quipped when the performance finally concluded, "it was all crotchets and quavers. It was so slow, so bloody slow".

True. It was beautifully written, beautifully played, but so slow and so utterly dull that I found myself at risk of gnawing off my own foot.

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