EYO Premiere Thrills Our Reviewer
Atmosphere 'electric' for new piece Dark Matter Sounding
The world premiere of a much anticipated ultra-modern work set in the unknown reaches of outer space was a strange, thrilling and memorable experience for both audience and orchestra at St Barnabas Church on March 1, writes Polly Manser.
All manner of unexpected effects were used in Dark Matter Sounding, composed by Nina Whiteman and performed by Ealing Youth Orchestra, including sounds akin to whale-song produced by rubbing a bouncy ball along the skin of a bass drum, and keys clicked on woodwind instruments played without breath or tone.
The ten minute piece was predominantly without melody or pulse, and followed in the tradition of modernist composers like the early 20th century Edgard Varèse, who viewed sound as noise and music as a sequence of noises. It was, atmospheric, dry, at times intensely loud, and had a feeling of things moving about and transforming from one state to another. For half a minute the orchestra played not to a set of instructions on the score – and the score looked pretty unusual - but by ad-libbing to a graph produced by the physicist Vera Rubin who pioneered work on galaxy rotation curves in the 1920s. This included, at the request of an orchestra member, the addition of an electric guitar. In the absence of a beat, conductor Leon Gee adopted an unusual style of movement, using large sweeping gestures, as if he were master of the universe, in command of its matter.
As it began, the atmosphere was electric. Everybody was in a heightened state of anticipation, not least the anxious composer. Few people in the 200 strong audience knew what to expect, but it quickly became clear that the experience would be very different from listening to, say, a Mahler symphony, because the piece was concerned with the representation of physical concepts in sound, rather than emotion in the traditional sense. But this was an audience of parents, friends and music lovers willing to be taken on a journey of discovery, helped by an opening presentation by the composer herself in which she explained her thinking and asked the orchestra to play some musical examples. After the first minute or so of the piece you could feel people relaxing into the work, soaking it up and trying to make sense of it, and at the same time straining to glimpse the strange ways in which the instruments were being played. By the end they seemed convinced; the applause was certainly convincing.
Describing her feelings on the night, Nina Whiteman said: “Before, I was thinking have I done my job well, will the players be able to show their best, will it all come together. I was extremely pleased with how it went; I was really caught by how they threw themselves at the boldness of it; it got very loud, and they played it with conviction.“
EYO chairman Chris Brown said: “We said to the players in rehearsal, 'this piece has never been played before, it’s been commissioned for you, and it’s yours. Don’t worry about what people will think; get behind it and trust that the performance will do the rest'. On the night they threw themselves into it and they did so with real verve and conviction, and that’s what took the audience along. The level of intensity and commitment they displayed made it a compelling experience which the audience bought into, and it achieved huge lift off. The response was genuinely warm and engaged.”
The evening continued with other modern works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi – an unusual and lushly romantic piece with a recording of birdsong over the music at one point - was followed after the interval by the challenging Suite from the film On the Waterfront by Leonard Bernstein, with solos by Joel Ashford on horn and Georgia Brown on flute. The final piece was a joyous romp for both orchestra and audience; with Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No 2, and its Latin American feel-good beat, the players let their hair down, and you couldn’t help but get swept along.
By Polly Manser
March 26, 2014