To describe this afternoon’s programme without raising eyebrows is rather like how I imagine the pioneer of the peanut butter and jam sandwich felt when justifying their discovery. A direct and very deliberate juxtaposition of Baroque, jazz and largely atonal, contemporary works is no BLT. But, those inquisitive enough to attend were to be rewarded with a lovingly crafted and deeply stimulating collection of performances. 

Litha and Effy Efthymiou © Stanislava Buevich
Litha and Effy Efthymiou
© Stanislava Buevich

The first half, entitled ‘Re-imagining’, was dedicated entirely to solo viola works and violin duos by women composers, reflecting the celebration of female creativity that defines this weekend’s Equator Women of the World Festival. 

It is rare for so much attention to be given to solo viola repertoire, and violist Mark Gibbs did well to bring the four pieces he performed to life. Elisabeth Lutyens’ 1981 work Echo of the wind was rarely played during her own lifetime – indeed, Lutyens scholar Dr Annika Forkert admitted afterwards that in the six years she has been studying the composer, this was the first time she had come across any of her work programmed. Gibbs brilliantly navigated the minefield of extended techniques and abrupt changes of character that dot the piece, making an excellent case for renewed interest in Lutyens – one of the first English composers to approach twelve-tone music seriously.

Thea Musgrave’s meditative In the Still of the Night joined two other works for solo viola, I’m Walking Here by Effy Efthymiou and Waves by her sister Litha. But the highlight of the half came with David Larkin and Ian Gibbs’ performance of Iberian Refractions (I, II, II), also by Litha Efthymiou. This frantic, deeply visceral work, written in 2017, is her response to an Old Hispanic medieval chant, borrowing from it a melody which worms its way into the core of the music over three movements. Gibbs’ finesse perfectly complemented the power and richness of Larkin’s playing, and the two remained perfectly attuned to each other throughout this utterly engrossing performance. 

The second half, curated by conductor Sam Poppleton and performed by musicians from his own Zeitgeist Orchestra, was a celebration of the unlikely kinship between Miles Davis’ album Birth of the Cool and the music of early Baroque composers Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Biber. All three instigated a profound change in attitudes towards the application of their music. They demanded it be appreciated in its own right – rather than as an adornment for worship, or as a soundtrack to 1940s New York nightlife. 

Domine ad Adjuvandum, the explosive opening to Monteverdi’s Vespers immediately segued into Davis’ Move!, both beautifully arranged by Poppleton for his mixed ensemble of Baroque and jazz instruments. There was a visible stir from audience members who, perhaps not having read the programme properly, had already settled into a Baroque listening mode. But the beaming smiles that immediately followed were confirmation of the experiment’s success. The Zeitgeist played with the precision and depth of any top-tier orchestra, and were visibly galvanised by a clear admiration for their conductor. 

Two more tracks from Birth of the CoolBoplicity and Moon Dreams followed, featuring superb improvisations from trumpeter Miguel Gorodi and saxophonist Will Gibson, as well as an unlikely bassoon solo from Matt Lewis. We were then brought back to the 17th century with performances of a Vivaldi flute concerto, and a selection from Heinrich Biber’s Battalia – one of the earliest known examples of programme music. In its second movement, Die liederliche gesellschaft von allerley Humor (The lusty society of all types of humour), the dramatic dissonances and experimental effects used to simulate drunkeness are a powerful reminder of Bieber’s pioneering spirit, linking perfectly to the theme of innovation that defines the programme.

The final work, Effy Efthymiou’s I Will Wait, But Not as I Run, was commissioned by Poppleton specifically for the concert. In it, Efthymiou synthesises Boplicity’s Cool Jazz melodies with those of Monteverdi, but through the prism of her own composition style. Two sustained violin parts, rarely more than a semitone apart, provide the backdrop for a battleground of interjecting melodies and violent tutti punctuations, concluding in a haunting final 30 seconds of singing that slips away to nothing. The work was a perfect culmination of the thoughts and processes behind Poppleton’s programme, and by looking back to the great pioneers of Baroque and jazz music, Efthymiou was able to create an equally powerful statement for 21st century inovation.