Christos Hatzis: String Quartet No. 3 (The Questioning) – Afiara String Quartet + Vassilis Agrocostas (pre-recorded)
Brian Current: Faster Still for violin, piano + string quartet – Veronique Mathieu (violin solo), Claudia Chan (piano), Nyx Quartet
R. Murray Schafer: Quintet for Piano and Strings – ARC Ensemble
Louis Andriessen: Anaïs Nin – Wallis Giunta (mezzo), Veronique Mathieu (violin) + 21c Ensemble
Performed at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Koerner Hall on May 22, 2014
Wallis Giunta went all kinds of places in the title role of Anaïs Nin, a minimalistically staged (by Liza Balkan) one-woman opera with an on-stage ensemble and video. Musically, it’s a harsh dissonant piece, very emotionally expressive, and closely symbiotic with the text taken from Nin’s diaries and letters. So far, so excellent. Nin’s lover-friends like Antonin Artaud and Henry Miller appear as side episodes, but for some reason the composer decided to focus on the incestuous love affair that Nin had with her father, composer Joaquín Nin. I say “for some reason” because either Artaud or Miller (or June, even) would have been more interesting characters around and against which to let Nin dramatize her desires and personality. The incest horror business after a while becomes a bit tedious. Maybe Andriessen considers this episode to be the defining event of Nin’s desiring and artistic life? In which case, I would disagree.
But despite this odd central choice, it’s a moving piece worth seeing. (Apparently it’s available on DVD now—it premiered in Italy in 2010.) Each revival does its own pre-recorded video segments, and this black-and-white faux old films style that Valerie Buhagiar chose just about works without crossing over into the easy nostalgia. Wallis Giunta in the title role gave it her all, and it can’t have been easy. Her voice was powerful, and acting not a little brave. It helps with getting the audience on your side that she is seductive and luxuriously sexy rather than seductive-freaky-a little scary as sexy, as the original production singer seems to have been. Andriessen chose the band instruments so they can convey the musical colours of the 1930s, so we get to hear saxophones, clarinets and percussion in addition to the piano. If there’s one serious objection I have, it is that the text was not always easy to understand and no surtitles to come to the rescue, and some of the important moments were lost on me for this reason.
The three other, non-vocal works were also intriguing, and not a boring minute between them. Hatzis’s string quartet has a religious chant at its core, which would not necessarily excite me, but its theme moves through various instruments and keys, and the orchestration and the palette in each of the movements is so incredibly rich that the work sounds almost symphonic. The idea was to contrast the first movement, the one of certainty, with the second movement of denial and nihilism, and attempt a sort of a new language outside this duality in the third movement.
Before hearing the Current piece, I should have read his brief note in the program, and would have made much more of the Faster Still. He explains that he wanted to create a piece in which the change of tempo is constant, and that he realized while composing that if the acceleration becomes continuous, the slower the music sounds. This is fascinating and deserving of close listening, but what I, completely unprepared, took from the piece was just a certain not unpleasant puzzlement.
Though all three works are physically demanding for the performers, which is a blast to watch—their whole bodies are engaged in the production of the sound—Schafer’s piano quintet was probably the most physical of all. In one of the final twists, the viola and the cello play against each other in a sort of a madcap rhythmic competition, and you’re *this close* to interjecting a whoo-whoo or two, as a response to the call.
Contemporary music = as much fun as you can have with your clothes on—or rather, as the case of Anais Nin demonstrates, with your underthings on.