I knew nothing of Derek Bermel before this concert, even though he comes with a glittering CV; two of the pieces on show here left me unconvinced, but the third encouraged me to suspend judgement for now.
The concert’s weakness came down to the fact this seemed like a pretty modest exhibition of Bermel’s talents – a function of the early evening freebie setting I guess. The opening piece, the clarinet solo Thracian Sketches, was slickly played by Bermel himself, but it’s really just a showpiece. Despite the fact that it opened the concert, I can imagine it making an excellent encore. In accordance with Bermel’s rich palette of stylistic references, the work emplyed Bulgarian rhythms, which Bermel instinctively emphasised through stamps of his left and right heels, and a klezmer sound – doesn’t all clarinet music sound ‘a bit klezmer’ these days? – and a happy habit of frequently switiching modes that gave it a glittering be-bop melodic feel.
The second work on the programme, Twin Trio, inspired by the birth of Aaron Jay Kernis’s twins, was a surprisingly lightweight work, particularly for something spanning four movements. It was well played though, particularly by Sarah Nicholls on a piano part that I felt underused the instrument.
However, Soul Garden was by far the most substantial work on the programme, and the one with most to recommend Bermel’s music. It’s written for string quintet (two cellos) and viola solo, but within this format delicate concertante groups are set up, particularly with the first cello and ensemble viola playing roles as secondary soloists. It’s the sort of concert work that sounds completely American, with the kind of open sonorities that connect bluegrass to Copland to early John Adams. Mic Holwin’s concert note observed that ‘the viola solo is made to resemble a burnished alto gospel singer; the cello a rumbling church baritone’, a comparison I didn’t quite hear, although the religious connotation was strong; perhaps a gentle church hall hoe-down?
The second half of the work shifted into a different gear, signalled with some Bartók-y pizzicato accompaniment and a bit of tipsy barrel organ – I swear I heard a descending melodic riff at one point that could have come from the 5th quartet. For me, this didn’t grab me quite as much as the almost-evaporated harmonies and evocative solo line of the work’s first half, but it did still retain unity through a similar gestural language and interplay between soloist and semi-soloists. In the end, it was Soul Garden that proved the most useful introduction to Bermel’s music, a referential blend that doesn’t wear its eclecticism on its sleeve, and I’m glad I was able to hear it.