Counterpoise offered a tasteful and well-crafted concert at Kings Place on Sunday of recent works accompanied by film and still photographs. The unusual instrumentation of the ensemble (violin, saxophone, trumpet, piano) was surprisingly effective. Works for smaller subsets of the ensemble gave individual performers a chance to shine as well.

Counterpoise (with violinist Alexandra Wood) at Kings Place © Nicky Colton-Milne
Counterpoise (with violinist Alexandra Wood) at Kings Place
© Nicky Colton-Milne

You might expect balancing a violin against a piano, trumpet and saxophone to be a formidable challenge, but Counterpoise makes this combination sound as natural as a string quartet. Trumpeter Deborah Calland spent most of the afternoon muted, which surely helped. But she and saxophonist Kyle Horch are to be commended for their sensitive and well-blended playing. Horch was particularly good at playing very low and very quietly, a combination that is especially difficult on saxophone.

He also had a chance to shine by himself on the one non-new piece on the programme, Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op. 49. Originally composed for solo oboe, it worked beautifully on soprano saxophone. Its six movements, each inspired by a different character from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, alternated rhythmically propulsive and lyrical material. Horch played with a beautiful sound throughout, as well as lovely phrasing, and a wide dynamic range. He achieved all the delicacy and piquancy of an oboe, but with an added oomph that was most welcome.

The most exciting work on the programme was the finale, Russell Hepplewhite’s Urban Abstract (a première). The piece was inspired by the architecture of buildings, but more by their poetry than by their literal shapes. In three movements, it was dramatic, varied, and well paced, with a nice flow and a strong sense of harmony. It was accompanied by a fanciful film of abstract building shapes that morphed into different patterns. It made the concert’s most powerful use of the whole ensemble – its final movement was the one time all day that the trumpeter got to play without her mute.

The other première on the program was Charlotte Bray’s short, evocative Soft City, set to a video by Olivier Ruellet. Ruellet’s video was quite striking, as abstract city-like images metamorphosed into living tissues and biological systems. Bray’s music was gestural and expressive, with dissonant harmonies and disjunct melodies that were surprisingly lyrical. The relationship of the music to the video was hard to discern on first hearing. Fortunately, since it was a short piece, they gave us a second hearing, and this time, though the relationships remained mysterious, it all made much more sense to me. It also raised the tantalizing thought of how differently we might respond to premières if it were standard practice to hear them twice in one sitting.

Jean Hasse’s The Fall of the House of Usher displayed a much more literal relationship to film. It was essentially a live soundtrack to the experimental 1928 short film by James Watson and Melville Weber, inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s story of the same title. The music brilliantly fit the mood and quality of this mysterious and dreamlike film. Dark and lyrical, it was somewhat reminiscent of early twentieth century composers like Prokofiev or early Stravinsky, as well as of the great film composer Bernard Herrmann. I could imagine that in some circles it might be considered in-artful for music to follow film so literally, but in this case it was highly effective, amplifying and deepening the film’s moods and gestures.

The other work on the program, John Casken’s Shadowed Pieces, featured violinist Caroline Balding and pianist Iain Farrington. It was in six short movements inspired by different mysterious landscapes, which were each projected on the screen as the music was played. Ranging from atonal jazz licks, to abstract birdsongs, to bleak tremolos and pained quarter-tone slides, to a George Crumb-like nocturnal dance, the work successfully projected a wide range of highly evocative sonic images. Balding and Farrington made the most of the different colors called for, and Balding was especially impressive in the fourth movement’s virtuosic runs.

All in all, it was a satisfying concert of well crafted, effective compositions performed expertly and sensitively. If I have one criticism it is that it all ended up feeling a bit middle-of-the-road. All of the compositions were undeniably well-made, but no motives from them were bouncing around my head afterwards, and none of them left me with new thoughts or questions. The programme would have been well served by something a bit more extreme, in whatever direction: extremely loud and dissonant, extremely soft and insubstantial, extremely simple and lyrical – something that boldly staked out some sort of ground. Certainly there is nothing at all wrong with well-crafted, professional, effective compositions, but the concert left me craving something that aimed a bit higher – and risked failing miserably.