St Andrew’s Lunchtime concert
Rebecca Turner (cello) with help from electronic tape
Music by Christopher William Pearce, Carl Vine and Pêteris Vasks
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Wednesday 3 August, 12:15 pm
There are certain benefits in forming habits, and the weekly lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s are among the less sinful of what I’m prepared to confess to. Well, there was the weather. But I was there and though we (Middle C Incorporated) had not assigned the reviewing to anyone, Rebecca Turner’s performance of a totally unknown composer soon had me reaching for pen and notebook.
It was by a composer friend of the cellist, 42-year-old American, Christopher William Pearce, and involved things that I often find pretentious, alienating, uncalled for, even disguising a lack of ideas. Sometimes the involvement of electronics or wacky instruments are a turn-off, but by setting aside prejudice, one can be surprised and delighted.
The first adventure however, was her cello, a black instrument without the traditional shape, but rather the shape of a large acoustic guitar. It delivered a warm and perfectly well projected sound. In spite of a normal wood-like sound produced when she hit the side of the cello, it was made of carbon-fibre which has become widespread in sports equipment and in the popular music field. It’s been accepted more recently in the non-classical field, but is still looked at askance by most classical musicians. I might have believed that too, before becoming increasingly uneasy at the madness of the multi-million dollar Stradivarius market; though I have given up claiming to detect a difference between a 1700 model and a well-made one of yesterday. There are in fact differences in the sound produced, but I suspect the untutored ear would only hear a louder and richer sound.
Rebecca played Pearce’s Variations on Wondrous Love, based on a ‘folk hymn’ from the American South, not familiar to me. It began normally, but slowly started to be interfered with by Asian sounds, a drone at the bottom end of the cello, eerie harmonics at the top, hypnotic sequences, hints of pentatonic tonality, trills and fancy efflorescence. Towards the end she parked her bow and attacked with pizzicato, which developed into a hair-raising technique as the plucking was linked with quick stroke down the string which created a sort of bowed effect. I found myself increasingly intrigued and amused (if that’s an emotion permitted of a reviewer of classical music).
The second piece was by Australian Carl Vine, some of whose music I know: not particularly main-stream. Rebecca Turner gave some details about how it was to work. It involved a microphone placed near the cello and the activation of a tape that the composer prepared and supplied with the score. That was a bit mysterious to me; I found it hard to see or hear how she activated the tape and controlled its behaviour; how her playing actually engaged with and kept in line with the accompanying tape (and at one point with a not incongruous police siren on the street). The tape later became increasingly dominant, leaving her as an unequal contestant, threatening to obliterate the cello’s mere human-created sounds. The sounds became increasingly complex, vying with each other, but the cello recovered its confidence and eventually subsided, as the main player, into rather gentle, lyrical music that even had touches of beguiling charm.
It did not annoy me and I had confess that for all its machine-driven aspects, the cellist’s skill in keeping abreast with the tape’s formidable demands, and the actual sounds produced, both impressed and delighted me.
Rebecca Turner, by the way, comes from Wellington – Tawa College, then a bachelor’s degree from Canterbury University, masters from Johns Hopkins and a doctorate from Goldsmiths College, University of London (where she was taught by the late cellist, Alexander Ivashkin, whom she’d followed after he left Canterbury), and where she now teaches.
Another excursion into the unorthodox was Pêteris Vasks’s Pianissimo. (Latvian: I have a special, irrational affection for Riga, a lovely, art nouveau-rich city with a splendid opera house where I got to four operas in a week, and Wagner worked in his twenties). It is the second movement of a piece called Book. Rebecca also described some of the experimental aspects of this, helping her cause by allowing a secretive smile to appear once or twice. The excitement here was an accompaniment, not from machine but from the cellist’s own voice, as she pursued a gentle contrapuntal line, her voice nicely modulated to accommodate the cello’s strenuous line, and long sinuous glissandi down the A string. In fact, her singing voice carried quite well, though I had some difficulty catching all she said in her introductory remarks.
Though there was no mention of using tape material in the Vasks piece, there were times when the high line carrying the decorative melodic sounds were accompanied by a low drone that I couldn’t imagine could have come from an adjacent string. But in fact, it did – fingering high on the D string, accompanied by the open G string.
Here was a recital where the existence of electronic elements and fairly unusual techniques seemed really at the service of music rather than, as I have too often felt, being experiments for their own sake. In any case, I enjoyed all three pieces for their musical interest and the impressive skill and musicality of the cellist.