Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Kate Suthers (violin), Collette Overdijk (violin), Adam Römer (viola), Ulrich Heinen (cello)]
Huang Ruo A Dust In Time (2020)
St Paul’s Church, Hockley, Birmingham
Tuesday 18 May
Written by Richard Whitehouse
The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns has put paid to many events, not least a performance of A Dust in Time by Huang Ruo planned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for December, after a memorable online account three months earlier. Fortunately, it was possible to reschedule this to coincide with the further lifting of restrictions – enabling a socially distanced audience to hear what, when that created as the consequence of these past 18 months can be assessed more objectively, will come to be regarded as a defining artwork.
Born in southern China and now resident in the United States, Huang has emerged among the more striking composers of his generation (recordings of four Chamber Concertos and three of his ‘Drama Theatre’ pieces are well worth investigating on Naxos). Stylistically his music ranges across Eastern and Western, traditional and original sources – the resulting synthesis notable for its keen integration. An approach evident in this work, contrast between whose underlying concept and formal procedures are outweighed by its overall expressive impact.
Drawing inspiration from the circular concept of the mandala central to Hindu and Buddhist cultures (not least that of Tibet), while unfolding along the lines of a passacaglia which has long been a favoured formal model in European music, A Dust in Time patently evokes issues of transience and becoming over the course of an inevitable yet inexorable progress. Starting and ending on unaccompanied cello, it draws in viola, second then first violins as harmonic and rhythmic movement increase towards the sustained convergence of sound and emotion.
In its shortest incarnation (as previously performed by groups such as the ASKO-Schönberg Quartet) the piece ends here, but this evening it gradually effected a falling-off of tension on the way back to its beginning – deft usage of the Golden Section bringing it full circle at just under an hour’s length. In the earlier stages, listeners may have been reminded of the opening ‘Elegy’ from Shostakovich’s 15th Quartet with its oblique allusion to Russian Orthodox chant and comparable ‘otherness’, but the continuation and outcome could hardly be more different.
The performance, by a quartet from BCMG, was no less impressive than that given online by these same musicians – not least in its immaculate tonal blending and sense of venturing forth on a shared trajectory toward a common goal. Ensemble faltered passingly in the later stages, but never enough to undermine the intense focus and concentration which was brought to the music-making. Certainly, those present were held in thrall through to the transfigured closing bars – heard to advantage in the resonant while never cloying ambience of St Paul’s Church.
Huang has spoken of an extended version in which the piece can be looped round to twice its current length and played by a larger body of strings as an installation, though it is debatable whether music of this intensity would translate into a relatively passive listening experience. Hopefully, tonight’s account will be made available commercially – making possible a larger audience for a work which, together with the Donmar Warehouse’s production Blindness last year, is the surest statement of defiance and transcendence in the face of unforeseen tragedy.
Last year’s BCMG online performance of A Dust in Time can be seen here: