Arriving to Southbank’s Purcell Room after a romantic Sunday evening walk along the river, I was in the perfect frame of mind to hear this excellently conceived concert. A concert that turned out to be both excellently performed and thoroughly enjoyable. The venue has a lot to offer – the Brutalist design belies the comfort and the sharp acoustic that is rarer than it should be in concert venues.

Oliver Coates, © Nathan Gallagher
Oliver Coates,
© Nathan Gallagher

The concert featured Oliver Coates (cellist and curator of the whole series) and Micachu (performer, composer, pin-up of the contemporary music trendy-type), both musicians benefiting from the Artist-in-Residence scheme that is producing some fantastic events for the Southbank Centre. The concert was introduced by the seriously (perhaps studiedly) understated Coates. After a brief reiteration of the programme, he launched into Thomas Adès’s Lieux Retrouvés, ably supported by pianist Danny Driver. The performers produced a tangible sense of connection, performing rhythmically angular music where cello and piano often work against each other, and creating the most brilliant friction. These short movements, titled ‘Les Eaux’, ‘La Montagne’, ‘Les Champs’ and ‘La Ville’, work together through their juxtaposition. This effect ties into Coates’ description of the programming ethos for the whole series as being ‘like a charm bracelet’, where each element is unique and good in its own right, but connecting the material allows something really special to emerge.

Coates stated that the miniatures by Micachu, which were placed strategically through the concert, would act to reset the ear for what was to come – in fact, they did much more than this. The first piece, Saw, had a light-hearted air that was appreciated by the audience – but at its core was a connection to the rest of the programme, and the series itself. Utilising bow pressure and position alone, the viola explored the overtones of a single pitch, creating, on the surface, a harsh, uncompromising sound but just beneath a kaleidoscope of beautiful, fleeting pitches created from the harmonic series.

A suite from Adès’ opera The Tempest followed, and was as delightful as all that had come before. For all the fame of Adès’ two operas and the success of his orchestral pieces, it is his chamber music that I think stands out as remarkable. It has intimacy and beauty in spades, and texturally these ‘Court Studies’ were both interesting and satisfying.

After the interval, Alvin Lucier’s masterpiece I am Sitting in a Room was performed by Micachu herself. This piece has very simple technical requirements but sadly there was a lack of preparation that rather ruined the whole thing – a shame, considering how rarely it is performed. The piece relies on a paragraph of text, read in a normal speaking voice, being played back in to the room to be recorded on top of itself again and again. The effect can be sublime: as the resonant qualities of the room’s acoustic are reinforced, a spectrum of slowly shifting harmonies (or more accurately ‘harmonic fields’) – all consonant – emerge, while the text becomes obscured. Unfortunately the microphone placement and lack of gain on the recording made for each reiteration of the paragraph to diminish in volume and, as the sound engineer presumably sweated and cursed, led to a great deal of hiss from forcing the volume higher and higher. It is a great shame when electronic performances are not subject to the same rigour as acoustic performance – this was the equivalent of forgetting to tune up.

Before we got to Adès’ string quartet, we were ‘aurally refreshed’ by Micachu’s second offering of the evening, You’re Always Hanging Around, for clarinet and synth. This piece offered simple, repeated upward scales supported by just-out-of-kilter harmonies that made for an eerie soundworld where each note that didn’t quite fit became profound. How this complex effect was born of such simple base material really is a testament to the composer.

We then moved on to Adès’ string quartet Arcadiana. The performance here swung from visceral to sensitive in the extreme, and in particular the slow movement’s lyricism and fragility were wonderfully delivered by this quartet. Sitting as I was a bare 10 metres from the composer, I can testify that he was pleased with the result of their endeavours, and a rapturous audience showed their appreciation too.

This concert worked so well because of the clever programming – the fact that Micachu could respond to the programme with her pieces really enhanced the evening as her miniatures tied the concert together and made sense of the punning title of the whole ‘series’. I look forward to the next instalment of this fine series of concerts in March.

****1