What a difference thoughtful programming can make. For this, their second concert of three at new venue SubCulture, the young players of Ensemble ACJW chose “Conversations” as a theme. It could have been banal, a little too obvious as players mingled with the audience members in the bar, or given the small groups required for each of these works. But it wasn’t at all. “Conversations” didn't just happen between the players in each of the pieces, but between the performances as their instrumentalists adopted different roles, and ultimately between the compositions themselves, between their remembrances, their influences, and their futures. We need ways to tell new stories about our music, and this one proved intelligent, coherent, and fun.

George Benjamin © Matthew Lloyd
George Benjamin
© Matthew Lloyd

Starting with George Benjamin always helps. In Viola, Viola (1997), Benjamin begins with material that seems to lack promise. What can one do with two violas, instruments that remain the butt of all orchestral jokes and, as Benjamin puts it, usually have as their role “a melancholy voice hidden in the shadows”? From a single, shared note, however, Benjamin builds something superb. From awkward timbres he insists on sonorous textures, as if conjuring an entire string orchestra. The two soloists operate for long periods in worlds that seem separate, but they also bump against one another, talk to and ignore one another, slide past and confront each other. Megan Griffin and John Stulz infused this music with such rhythmic zest that I thought of a long night on the dance floor, of two strangers linked but still wary, dancing in the present but recalling past nights, their evening eventually breaking down into an unexpected, pizzicato postlude of reflection and regret, when the drama has long ceased. Griffin and Stulz drew every ounce from this piece, combining precision with a freedom born of genuine understanding.

Next came Ligeti's Musica ricercata. Written in the early 1950s, these eleven pieces step through the gears, the first containing only two notes (A, in various registers, and D, left as a final surprise), the second, three, and so on until a twelve-note tone row provides a fugal homage to Frescobaldi. Originally penned for solo piano, Ligeti later arranged six of the more textually varied pieces as his Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon). So it's natural to have those six interpolate among the piano's remaining five, to have different sides of Ligeti and different aspects of these pieces converse. On the piano, Alexandria Le proved just as rhythmically alert as our violists, and keen to draw parallels, to Liszt in the second piece, to the fairs of Pétrouchka in the sixth, and most obviously to Bach in the eleventh. In the quintets, Catherine Gregory, Stuart Breczinski, Liam Burke, Laura Weiner and Nanci Belmont neatly drew attention to Ligeti's humour, and blended superbly to give lyrical air to dissonances.

After the intermission, Andy Akiho's LIgNEouS 1 (2010) took up the more motoric aspects of the Ligeti, in his extraordinary dance set for string quartet and marimba… all of it. Ian Sullivan threw himself into the physicality required for this work, using regular sticks to scrape the pipes, strike the structures around the wooden bars, and plucking elastic snaps. LIgNEouS 1 is based on repetitions, but its whirrs and its rebounds build to from innocuous beginnings to a frankly euphoric high. Too high a high, perhaps, for poor Johann Sebastian Bach, whose Ricercar from the Musical Offering rather suffered. Our sextet of violin, flute, oboe, horn, and two cellos found a nice flow here, and emerged from the textures well, but there was a general instability here that meant it didn’t quite work.

Harrison Birtwistle © Hanya Chlala
Harrison Birtwistle
© Hanya Chlala

Not so with Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Cortege. A typically ritualistic piece written for the London Sinfonietta in 2007, a requiem of sorts, ten of the fourteen players each takes a solo stint in the centre of a semicircle, handing a single line around that in turn memorialises various people and sounds (Berio here, Boulez there), before returning to the circle, now in the place of the next soloist. Meanwhile an accompaniment interrupts, interpolates, and comments, a bass drum thwacking out to remind everyone why they are there. Birtwistle runs the gamut between sheer horror and genuinely touching moments, and the bonfires of death and even sacrifice were strikingly evoked by these players. The tight space at SubCulture meant that the full stipulations of Birtwistle’s staging (and it is that) could not be created: in the score, players are seated and stand as, in the final moments, the flute speaks to each, as if talking with spirits. So the “ceremony” of the piece perhaps gave way to something chattier. But as the music died away, Catherine Gregory's flute along hanging on in vain, the effect was still crushing.