Review: Music in the Round, 'Transformations' at Penistone Paramount, 04.04.2014

 

On Friday 4th April, 2014, the members of Music in the Round’s chamber group Ensemble 360 performed ‘Transformations’ at the Penistone Paramount. This programme, which was premiered in 2013, was designed to commemorate two important centenaries – the discovery of stainless steel, so important to the city in which the group are based (Sheffield), and the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten.

 

The first work of the evening was Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, op. 49, a piece for solo oboe performed by Adrian Wilson.

 

This piece, which is complex enough in its own terms, was performed in a multi-layered and mixed media context. To begin with there was the musical work itself, which draws not only upon Ovid but also the tradition of such musical transformations of literary pieces. We also had Adrian Wilson’s performance of this work, itself an act of interpretation. Then we had the welcome complication of an accompanying film by Katie Goodwin, a work that is itself composed of fragments from earlier film works that have been treated, re-worked and re-contextualised here. And, finally, there was the spoken word, literary introduction to each of the six metamorphoses.

 

What was at stake in such a multi-contextual performance was the very concept of ‘Transformations’ itself, and the way that works can be moved, reproduced and represented.

 

This contextual complexity could have led to some confusion. The fact that it didn’t is a testament to the quality of the performance and production. Wilson’s playing was highly sophisticated. He handled the large interval leaps and their coinciding dynamic and tonal shifts with great control. The short flashes of notes with which Britten often ends his phrases were never thrown away but placed. A dedication to the work was evident throughout. And all of this whilst having to choreograph the performance with the film!

 

Katie Goodwin’s films were always interesting and melancholic in tone. Faces were seen misted out, as though across a great distance, or as if being recalled in memory. In the ‘Phaeton’ sequence reels of film rushed away so that they began to resemble the ‘stargate’ sequence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film with which Goodwin has more explicitly engaged elsewhere. Meanwhile, in ‘Bacchus’ dancers circle and move, only again at a distance.

 

Coal Face (dir: Alberto Cavalcanti), the film made by the GPO film unit in 1935 and which features music by Britten, was shown next. It is a startling work which offers a powerful vision of pit life, and whose austere tone belies its experimental nature.

 

Ensemble 360’s performance of Britten’s Sinfonietta, Op.1 was the best of the evening. Where this composer’s works might come across as angular at times, cold even, here we were presented with a piece full of warmth. The woodiness of the woodwinds and strings was noticeable and the effect was, at times, even Romantic. The tonal balance achieved through the balance of instruments – the work is for string quintet and wind quintet – was especially noticeable, as was the interaction between the musicians.

 

The final piece of the evening was With Stolen Fire by Music in the Round’s associate composer Charlie Piper. This, like Britten’s Sinfonietta, is written for string quintet and wind quintet. If this piece wasn’t as engaging as those that preceded it then it certainly formed a fitting conclusion to the programme. The effect was less Romantic and the playing delivered with a sharper, steelier edge that was appropriate as the work was being performed alongside film-maker Tony Comley’s awe-inspiring (and terrifying) film of steel works, a work made of reworked film footage.

 

This project, like the In a Paris Salon performances (the first of which I saw in 2013) demonstrates Ensemble 360’s desire to operate in interesting ways and to put works into startling and effective contexts.

 

 

 

I was lucky enough to have won tickets to this event in a competition on Twitter. Thanks to Music in the Round.

 

 

 

 

© James Holden

Published Sunday 06th April 2014