Saturday, February 05, 2011

Not at all like Opera: The Arditti Quartet at the Wigmore Hall

I wouldn't say I'm a stranger to classical music, although I tend to prefer theatrical drama, Not surprisingly, the musical form I like best is is opera. A concert I attended recently almost had me convinced that words are no help if the music itself is difficult.

It was suppposed to be my friend's birthday treat - a concert at the Wigmore Hall, for which I'd been offered cheap tickets. According to the publicity notice, a countertenor was to sing an arrangement of Mexican poems. I remembered how much she'd enjoyed it some time ago when we went to hear James Bowman sing in a church at Spitalfields. It would be a treat for us both - or so I thought.

Four pieces were to be performed by a group called the Arditti Quartet. I hadn't been to the Wigmore Hall before because I hardly ever go to concerts, so that was a novelty, too. I admired the the art nouveau bas-relief figures on a cupola above the stage and the decorative metal sconces lighting the walls. I wandered about and took photos in the interval, trying to soothe my spirits after the shock of the playing.

I should have been suspicious when I didn't recognise the names of any of the composers : Clarke, Ferneyhough, Fujikura and Parades. The titles of the pieces didn't give any clue, either, except for Canciones Lunáticas, the poetry-based one: Lunar Songs.

The first three items were quartets of a very non-musical kind. They required a great deal of effort from the musicians to get the weirdest noises from their instruments. The viola player broke two strings and the violins and cello took a battering too. Even the composition with words, left until the end, seemed designed with the same intention to disturb. The meaning of the words was obscure - conjuring varying moods instead of making a narrative.

The first piece was the worst -like the sound track to a horror film, combining screeches in the attic, scrabbling in the cellars and a lot of rumbles and crunches as of wheels on gravel. I couldn't see how the sounds were produced, although we were on the second row, slightly to one side. My friend is French and elderly, so I was apologetic - but said she liked it, and that it reminded her not so much of someone strangling cats as the back-yard feline concerts remembered from her youth. 'They don't happen any more because they are all neutered!' She liked all natural sounds, she said.

The audience liked it too. The works were all premieres and the composers appeared after each piece to loud clapping and, in two cases, cries of 'Bravo!'.

What a surprise on Saturday night when the car radio, tuned to to BBC Radio 3, was about to deliver a concert of 'contemporary music'. Sure enough, the presenter announced a piece by Ferneyhough, played by the Arditti Quartet. I didn't want to risk crashing the car at Catford, so I turned it off.

I liked the friendly informality of the Wigmore Hall so I'll go again, but to something a bit less avant-garde in future. When even words fail to soften the blow, it's clear I need to creep up on this sort of thing.

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