It’s not every evening that you hear a composition played on two serrated Nigerian Fanta bottles. Nor is it every evening that you hear pieces by Schumann and David Byrne (formerly of Talking Heads) in the same concert. Nor, for that matter, do cellists often sing. As this concert’s title suggested, ‘Uncharted’ at Kings Place was very much a trip into the unknown.
Predominantly playing works for cello and percussion, Joby Burgess and Matthew Sharp presented a startling and exhilarating selection of music drawn from disparate sources. The four songs played during the first half – Byrne, Brel, Schumann and Björk – were presented in bold arrangements which used electronic looping (the live recording and then repetition of short musical phrases, as ostinati). In the Byrne song, Burgess set down a pattern on the marimba which looped, leaving him free to provide an accompaniment to Sharp’s vocals on drum kit. This was one of the most gleeful concert openers I can recall. Perhaps a touch less successful was their reimagining of Schumann’s Auf einer Burg, using atmospheric percussion to accompany a spoken-word English translation of the text, before segueing into the melody, sung in German. This was a novel solution to the problem of what to do with foreign-language texts, but unfortunately the combination of eerie percussion and spoken words strayed a little too close to William Shatner’s The Transformed Man, and I struggled to take it entirely seriously.
The first half’s show-stealer was composer and DJ Gabriel Prokofiev’s Fanta® for serrated Nigerian Fanta bottles, a part of his Import/Export suite for ‘global junk’. The piece straddled traditional generic distinctions in precisely the way that followers of Prokofiev and his record label Nonclassical should expect, combining rigorous attention to complex musical detail with a sincere passion for the rhythms of dance music. The outcome was a result which was that incredibly rare thing: a genuinely cool piece of classical music. I can only assume the reason that it hasn’t become a viral YouTube hit yet is that all of the internet’s cute cats and dancing babies and Star Wars impersonators have formed some sort of terrible alliance to stop it being uploaded.
Sharp took on the unenviable task of following the Fanta bottles, with the solo cello piece Soliloquies of Solace by the composer Jason Yarde. While Yarde, who is also a saxophonist, is perhaps better known for working in jazz and urban styles, this was more of a classical composition, a piece of meditative intensity culminating in an expansive, rich soundscape created once again through inventive use of looping. The concert’s first half also featured Errollyn Wallen’s Voodoo, a scintillating and heavily jazzy work for cello and marimba which showcased Burgess and Sharp’s confidence and virtuosity as a duo.
The slightly more serious second half featured two works: Param Vir’s ...beyond the reach of the world..., for cello and a variety of percussion instruments, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Mariel, for cello and marimba. Vir’s composition was an intense piece inspired by a letter by Kim Malthe-Bruun, a young member of the Danish Resistance during World War Two who was tortured and eventually executed by the Gestapo. Frenetic and structurally very free, the piece gathered together an impressive burst of energy and ended with Sharp ecstatically, silently bowing the side of his cello. This was a fascinating composition, but for me it lacked a total sense of togetherness – or perhaps this was clouded slightly by the very busy percussion part, which involved more instruments and ideas than I could keep up with. I would be interested to hear the version for solo cello by way of contrast.
Mariel, by the Argentinian composer Golijov, was a beautiful, poignant end to the concert. Written in memory of a friend, the piece delicately weaves a folk melody among a dense and sometimes harsh network of chords. This let both Sharp and Burgess demonstrate their ease with melody, and their love for the piece shone through the performance. Mariel was a sweet note on which to end a remarkably diverse concert. Burgess and Sharp’s blend of virtuosity, good humour and taste turned their venture into the uncharted into an approachable and enjoyable evening.
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