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Louise Blouin Foundation Concert Series 2009

Manson Ensemble
Louise Blouin Foundation, 3 Olaf Street, London
(2009)

October's ‘First Thursday’ concert in the inaugural concert series at the Louise Blouin Foundation featured the Royal Academy of Music’s flexible Manson Ensemble. Specialising in the performance of new music, the ensemble dates from 1968 when it performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. It has a fluid membership of students who are studying at the Academy, then move on, yet it has maintained a consistently high reputation and profile on the contemporary music scene. Its repertoire spans the works of both composers at their prime and composers at the start of their careers, while also taking in the works of composers active over the last hundred years.

This wide span of repertoire was reflected in the Manson Ensemble’s programme at the Louise Blouin Foundation. The first piece was by Swedish composer Sebastian Rapacki, the youngest of the composers whose works were being featured. Statuesquely Nordic, in the pre-concert talk, he chose to remain reticent about describing the work, inviting the music to speak for itself. Genom drömmarnas corridor (Through the corridor of dreams) spoke as a melody would meeting the wind, in a slow flow of atmospheric colours featuring a considerable amount of trills and glissandi from clarinet, viola and cello. Although the piece was inspired by a mountain road in Greece, Rapacki chose to imbue it heavily with Nordic nostalgia both in the orchestration and the melodic outlines he used.

David Sawer’s Between followed, which turned out to be the highlight of the evening. A simple, effective, haunting structure of sculptural beauty brought to life in sound and movement by harpist Elen Hydref, it stood out as an exceptional piece both structurally and musically. The original piece straddled contemporary music, ballad and music theatre (as opposed to musical theatre) boxes and refused to be contained in any of them. If you ever get a chance to hear Elen Hydref live, cancel whatever else you might have on and go. Her performance alone was well worth the price of admission.

Philip Cashian’s Concertantes followed. Cashian is one of the more experienced living composers whose works featured in the programme and a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. He described the piece with quietly-voiced authority, his music a controlled virtuoso exploration of dynamic range which played out within a classically-informed jazz-inspired language full of jazz syncopations and accessible erudition. The piece, scored for clarinet, horn, viola and cello, was originally written for the Endymion Ensemble.

Emily Andrews then gave a solo performance of Edgar Varèse’s Density 21.5 and was subsequently joined by Jennifer Wilkinson on viola and Elen Hydref on harp for And then I Knew ‘twas Wind by Toru Takemitsu, a haunting performance. The composer’s liberal use of augmented and diminished intervals giving the piece a sense of timelessness and transparent floatiness.

The highlight of the second half of the programme was another solo performance – this time of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet played elegantly and masterfully by George Sleightholme, his stately sense of rhythmic playfulness and command of the piece belying his student status. The final piece by Simon Holt, Shadow Realm, made particularly effective use of flageolet notes on the Academy’s 1790 Salomon cello, from which Liubov Ulybysheva coaxed some sublime sounds – a sophisticated instrument for a sophisticated piece. The remaining pieces performed were Laurie Bamon's Thames Stirring Night and Peter Maxwell Davies' Sea Eagle played by the Polish horn player, Grzegorz Curyla.

In his ‘First Thursday’ concert series at the Louise Blouin Foundation, Artistic Director Andrew Matthews-Owen has shown his commitment to programming a broad range of music from the classical and contemporary repertoire, with a healthy bias towards the latter. Could the Louise Blouin Foundation ‘First Thursday’ concerts develop into the contemporary equivalent of what the Queen's Hall ‘Promenade Concerts’ or Crystal Palace ‘Saturday Concerts’ were in their day? It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility – particularly with a bit more of the variety and cross-disciplinary programming the centre has edged towards, and have ample resources to do, but not really explored as fully as it might.

Reviewer: Leon Conrad