Xenakis: Nuits; Finnissy: Maldon; Wollin and de Pauw: Strange News

Exaudi,London Sinfonietta/Weeks and Brönnimann

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 3 October 2010 4 stars

Strange newsWar. That was the subject of this, the opening concert of what looks to be a highly promising 2010/2011 season for the London Sinfonietta. Across three highly charged and variously arranged musical scores by, respectively and in order, Iannis Xenakis, Michael Finnissy, and Rolf Wallin, different aspects of war - from its musical symbols to its sonic warfare to its humanist pageantry - were brought into elusive presence at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

In truth this was as much Exaudi and their music director James Weeks' concert as it was the Sinfonietta's. We have come to expect much of Exaudi, perhaps the leading new music vocal ensemble working in Britain today. And this expectation didn't prove burdensome in the slightest. Xenakis' Nuits, a 1967 work that gurgles, teems, and screeches through nine turbulent minutes, opened the concert. Though the variegation and outlandishness of effect can sometimes pall in Xenakis, Nuits condensates pungent sensations in stark incantation and with considerable authority - the brilliance of the piece can be located most distinctly in its dazzling stagings of various sonic events drawn from war, including crowd terracing effects, flashes of stunned silence and screened off noise, and the terrible arc of falling mortar and shells. Exaudi's performance could have done with a little more sharpness in the articulation of the irregular phrases, but when the effects are as startling and the emotion as vivid as they were here, it would be ungenerous to complain too much.

Finnissy's Maldon, from 1991, is a more discreet work, although it comes off with no little power all the same. It contrasts a setting of a tenth century Anglo-Saxon epic - translated to a modern idiom and sung/spoken/shouted by Leigh Melrose with almost preternatural vigour, with support from percussion and brass who chime their fanfares and clatter their roiling cymbals and drums first off stage and then on - with a choral setting of an anonymous thirteenth century English poem that comments obliquely on the narrated battle between natives and Vikings of Melrose. The chorus' music is buttressed by an organ drone, one of many idiomatic touches, along with the modal scales and the canonic structures, that keep faith with the origins of the text. The simplicity of the conception was worthy of Judith Weir or Howard Skempton, whilst the effectiveness of the execution, both in terms of Melrose's grave narration and Exaudi's rather beautifully coloured and elegantly layered commentary, was strong throughout.

Rolf Wallin (composer) and Josse de Pauw (director)'s Strange News is a highly interesting work. Scored for full chamber orchestra with onstage narrator, video, and electroacoustic backing, it attempts to find a moment of empathy with the plight of child soldiers and the communities from which they have been torn. Works such as this are in danger of portraying vacuous liberal sympathising, awkward verité, and incongruous juxtapositions of tones and cultures, but through a creative use of means and effects, and, most significantly, through the extraordinarily mature, compassionate, and vibrant narration of young Ugandan Arthur Kisenyi, Strange News just about escapes this fate.

The work's opening, with a silenced Jon Snow on screen eventually announcing 'This is the News!' being followed by graphic, explicit videos of violence and atrocity and masculine posture in war torn areas of Africa with thumping minimalist musical backing, creatively smears the real and the virtual. The logical endpoint of the capitalist videodrome culture is one where the virtual appears real and the real virtual, and the opening dramatises this tension wonderfully. The work opens out poetically in later sections to fragmented, blushed musical backing and vividly read texts (the incantatory 'strange!' rang all too true). The musicians and conductor (a charged Baldur Brönnimann) abandon the narrator in the third part, the latter speaking of 'life like water' and telling of his desertion of the army he had been compelled to follow, before the band rejoins him for 'Singing and Dancing', a musically twisting evocation of the therapeutic projects former child soldiers undergo upon repatriation to traditional tribal society. The fourth wall is broken explicitly in the final section, where the narrator turns to the crowd and pleads, simply, for a 'life like yours'. Apart from the possible queasiness of this aspiration, the delivery made for a moving valediction.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Arthur Kisenyi performs Strange News

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