Quick review: Chaya Czernowin at the Royal College of Music

It has been an unusually busy week here – while I was in Cologne for Tree of Codes, Liz has been in the middle of producing a four-night run (sold out!) of short plays at the Hope Theatre – but I wanted to say a few quick words about Chaya Czernowin’s recent visit to the RCM before too much time passed.

Chaya was in London for four days, during which time she gave some composition classes, presented a seminar on her work (which I helped chair), and rehearsed two concerts of her work by RCM students, one of chamber pieces (Six miniatures and a simultaneous songAdiantum Capillus-Veneris, and Anea Crystal: Seed I) and one orchestra/large ensemble (Wintersong IV: Wounds/Mistletoe, Slow Summer Stay II: Lakes, At the fringe of our gaze, White Wind Waiting).

Overall, it was a great success, and a very happy few days to have taken part in. The composition students I saw appeared attentive and inspired, and although only about a third(!) took up the offer of a free tutorial from one of the world’s leading teachers, I understand that those that did were very keen for more.

Of the two concerts, the orchestral one on Saturday evening was the stronger. The players in Friday’s chamber concert did well with with very challenging, and highly exposing music – in particular Sarah Hayashi in the solo vocal Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, and the string quartet of Henry Chandler, Clarice Rarity, Johan Hoeglind and Timothée Botbol in Anea Crystal – but the larger concert was the real stunner. The only disappointment was that more people were not there to see it. Attendance was not bad, but beyond RCM students and associates I spotted surprisingly few of the usual new music crowd, and fewer still of a wider listenership.

Well, if you weren’t there you missed a treat. Ian Pace, who I happened to be sitting alongside, reckoned it one of the best concerts he’d heard in a long time. For me, it began well and just got better. Wintersong IV and Slow Summer Stay II both effectively showed off Czernowin’s strikingly physical musical language, her use of space and unusual instrumental combinations, as well as her ability to construct entirely original and unexpected forms.

But it was with the two orchestral pieces in the second half that things really took off. At the fringe of our gaze was written for the young performers of Daniel Barenboim’s East West Divan Orchestra, and was ideally suited to the players of the RCM. Aware of the aesthetic demands her music can make on players who may not be used to it, Czernowin has composed into the work a gradual move from the familiar (harmony, polyphony, melody) into the strange. When the opening (‘familiar’) material returns in the middle of the piece, it now feels totally estranged, both listeners and players having been taken into Czernowin’s world.

It seemed to be a good preparation for the quasi-guitar concerto, White Wind Waiting. This is a strange piece, perhaps somewhat transitional, a step along the path to the radically stripped-down style of the subsequent HIDDEN for string quartet and electronics (which can be heard in Boston this Friday). It certainly isn’t easy to realise: although the guitar is the soloist, it does very little that is concerto-like; and the work’s structure as two panels of increasingly empty space does not provide for half-committed note bashing. Fortunately, the RCM orchestra, conducted by Johannes Harneit (and with Jonatan Bougt as soloist) were more than up to the job. This was a stunning, and wholly convincing performance of a difficult piece. I knew a recording of it a little in advance, but this rendition completely sold me on the music’s delicate and deeply moving poetry of absence. Congratulations to William Mival, Jonathan Cole and everyone else at the RCM for putting the event together. Here’s to more!


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