Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review: Cantamus Choir/Mikhail Karikis at the Emmanuel Church, Loughborough, 26 January 2008

An interesting gig... Which I almost managed to blunder into late – it said 7.30 p.m on the web site. But – hey – when did any performance start on time? I arrived just after ten past, saw a queue as the doors were not open yet and figured: a swift drink then back in time... Returning just after 7.30 to see the choir all ready to go into the church as I bundled through and quickly paid for my ticket... Flustered, grabbed a seat at the back as they filed in... just made it... These people are punctual! Maybe some of the audience thought I was part of the show, a "stranger" from another realm (see below...)...

I was not sure quite what to expect, having found the details via a link in the Wire (no joke intended) that piqued my interest – especially as I was not aware of Radar, the Loughborough University Arts Programme. I thought we were the only people round here doing experimental wahoo – and the Club Sporadic has been in abeyance, due to a variety of factors. God's Little Acre doesn't support anything very musically different with much degree of enthusiasm – tribute bands and folk music is your lot until you hit Nottingham or Derby, Leicester occasionally... So: I thought I'd better go along and check it out...

The performance took place in Loughborough's Emmanuel Church, just out of the town centre. The last time I was in here was for my grandfather's funeral way back – the interior has since been revamped, now stripped out and very clean, almost austere apart from the soft colours, dominated by a large crucix hung from the ceiling. The Cantamus Choir – forty plus girls between the ages of 13 and 19, were accompanied by piano (and occasional tambourine). The premise: the choir, in collaboration with Mikhail Karikis, would be exploring 'notions of difference and its musical articulation, [consisting] of old and new works from the UK and abroad, which feature “strangers” from otherworldly realms and disparate geographical locations... [concluding] with the premiere of A Stranger Here, a new work by Karikis for Cantamus and him in the role of soloist.' (From the programme notes).

This presented a wide spread of folk songs native and foreign and pieces that ranged from Purcell to Maconchy via Shumann and Grieg, culminating in the five sections of Karikis's work, which 'visits the homonymous motet by English Baroque composer John Amner (1759-1641) and imagines a cross-century and cross-cultural musical dialogue.'(Ibid). Another measure of the distance to be travelled - 'cross-century and cross-cultural' - is between the references to Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' and the contemporary music of Karikis, from the edge of the Christian era to the problematic cultural/spiritual areas of today.
'In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora,' as it were: 'I want to speak about bodies in new forms.' (From 'Metamorphoses,' Bk I:1).

The choir sang beautifully throughout and had no problems negotiating the harmonic/cultural spaces opened up by the moves between folk and 'art' musics, from the opening spiritual surety of 'Gaudete' to the later steps into more transgressive disruption. A surefooted, impressive performance – although the occasional interlude of choreography left me a trifle amused – it seemed a bit 'worthy' rather than adding anything to the performance. But having said that – the space was very exposed, minimal lighting, natural acoustics, so maybe it was felt that this was needed to spice it up a bit. Unnecessary, in my opinion – but this was not my turf, so... Unless - it was a deliberate move into irony, contrasting earlier innocence/purity with what was to come... Second-guessing will lead you into choppy heuristic waters...

The physical entry of the composer was also a bit problematic for me – he was just plain funny, in a leather jerkin that looked as if it had been left over from some ancient pantomime and some odd kind of scarf with coloured bobbles attached. I'm not sure this was intentionally humourous... At the beginning of the night, his voice was heard, briefly, from up above the main body of the church. Now, he interrupts the choir, coming forward out of the audience, adding a male voice to the massed female contingent, using extended vocal techniques that contrasted against the choral purity,shouts, chants, coughs, stutters in a rough granular interrogation – which as it progressed, became more interesting. (I'd stopped laughing by then). The choir re-arrange, parting physically at one point to signify a wide break that is caused by the presence of Karikis. Voices compete against voice - the choir in the main drowning out the harsher male tones of the interloper in parts with some stunning hair-raising harmonics being generated, until a (precarious?) balance is finally achieved as the trajectory of disruption ceases.

A fascinating night, then... Some incongruities – the demure choir in pastel robes, the jester figure of the composer, in the setting of a church – maybe they were intentional, part of the exploration of difference... Perhaps the spartan nature of the venue dictated the parameters of composition, arrangement and performance – one could imagine this work in a more contemporary setting, with added multi-media presence – or perhaps the reverse of my speculation is true, that the work was site-specifically created, deliberately playing off the sacred setting with the contrasts and brusque interjections of profane voice and presence. Certainly there is enough flexibility built in to extend in either staging direction, simplicity or complexity. Many questions raised as well - reverberating way beyond their brief musical appearance. Karikis was very impressive (once I got past the costume), using his performance art background to good effect. The choir especially displayed a collective supple strength and technique that allowed them to veer between genres and various levels of complexity, folk music and the western art music tradition ancient and modern (post-modern: Karikis?) – no easy feat as most 'straight' renditions of folk songs wreck them completely – think Peter Pears et al ripely over-enunciating... this was demonstrated by their version of 'Let no man steal your thyme,' which is a twee bloody song anyway much hated down the years – this was the best version I've ever heard of it by a country folk mile, an intense exploration of a piece that is usually played for cheap prurient giggles...

So: congratulations to Radar. We need more adventurous music/perormance in God's Little Acre... I look forward to the next manifestation... To crank up the Ovid reference a little further:

'Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
('Metamorphoses', Bk XV:871-879 Ovid’s Envoi).

'And now the work is complete, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the consuming bite of time.'


No comments: