On the banks of the wide Gautava as it flows into the Gulf of Riga, a large fish market and a row of warehouses attest to Riga's seafaring heritage. As in many ports, the shipping has moved to deeper waters, so the warehouses have been converted: one of them has turned into the intimate 200 seater Spīķeri Concert Hall. Top quality steel and woodwork and a plethora of a/v and lighting equipment make it a great space for contemporary music. Last night's musicians were Art-i-Shock, a piano/cello/percussion trio of young women who were at music school together in Riga. The programme was Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, each season paired with a newly written piece by a Latvian composer.

Art-i-Shock © David Karlin
Art-i-Shock
© David Karlin

Piazzolla's seasons share a common feel of aching, bittersweet nostalgia evoked by flowing melodic lines and interrupted by the rapture and violence of the tango. A certain ambiguity of key adds a particular bite to the nostalgia (you're never quite sure if you're about to shift from major to minor or back) and even in the most schmaltzy of melodies, you always sense that the tango is trying to break out. And when it does, its characteristic rhythm is impossibly seductive.

The programme notes point out the obvious: “the composition of the trio is original, and there are few opuses for piano, cello and percussion”. The Piazzolla was arranged for Art-i-Shock by Andrejs Puškavers; “percussion” in this case meaning mostly marimba. Elīna Endzele proved to be a highly virtuosic marimba player. I was impressed by her ability to sustain long notes in a melodic line by a technique similar to a guitar tremolo, as well as by her playing of short fill-in chords and arpeggios. But I've heard Piazzolla's tangos played on many different instrument combinations and I couldn't suppress the feeling that Puškavers was facing an uphill task. With the marimba unable to carry the melody for long, this fell mainly to the cello (which Māra Botmane played with panache) leaving pianist Agnese Egliņa to shoulder the full burden of maintaining the rhythm (in Piazzolla's own band, the job would have fallen to bandoneon and electric guitar). Variations were possible, such as a great moment in Winter when Botmane produced ferocious attack on the low strings of the cello as the tango rhythm burst through, but in spite of high quality playing from all three musicians, the available palette of colours and timbres felt limited.

Of the four new pieces, Rihards Dubra's Les Passions de l'Automne, which closed the first half, caught my imagination. It married up well to the Piazzolla (without in the slightest being a tango itself) by having the same back and forth relationship between nostalgic lyricism and intense rhythm. I also liked the work's construction, with a simple four note figure starting in thin timbre and thickening out as the piece grew in intensity.

None of the other three new pieces appealed to me. My heart sinks when faced with programme notes like “The behaviour of incorporeal beings of sound changes during the moment of their appearance” and I have little interest in the style of music whose basis is to get obscure effects out of the piano, whether by thumping it as loudly possible with a fist or flat arm, reaching inside to pluck the strings or throwing rubber balls into the piano to see where they bounce. Marina Gribinička's Agronomic Process, containing various vocal chirps, the beating of wings of toy wooden birds and the process of (literally) watching paint dry as Egliņa left her piano to daub paint onto paper on an easel, is a stereotypical example of a type of contemporary music that I simply don't get.

Experimental music is, well, experimental: its nature is that some things succeed and some fail. I only enjoyed one out of four new pieces and I was less than convinced by the Piazzolla arrangements. But I have to say that Piazzolla's Spring, which closed the concert, was the strongest arrangement of the four – perhaps I was getting attuned to the marimba. I'll still take my hat off to the virtuosity and verve of these young musicians.

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