In concert – Royal College of Music London students – Chamber Spotlight: Different Trains

Ed Driver Fruits Of Their Laboue (world premiere)
Ed Pelham (clarinet), Tabitha Bolter (horn), Aidan Campbell (bassoon), Stone Tung (trumpet), Eddie Curtis (bass trombone), Michal Oren (conductor)
Schoenfield Café Music (1987)
Rubie Besin (violin), Layla Ballard (cello), Alexander Doronin (piano)
Reich Different Trains (1988)
Jordan Brooks, Sara Belic (violins), Scott Storey (viola), Sam Hwang (cello)

Performance Hall, Royal College of Music
Wednesday 15 March 2023, 6pm

by Ben Hogwood

If you live in or around London, it is well worth reminding you that one of the best ways in which to experience classical music is to visit one of the enterprising colleges and academies in the city. They are packed with interesting recitals, with several lunchtime or early evening concerts per week, with interesting programmes and enthusiastic students ready to give them. The two most obvious examples are the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, though more can be sought and found.

It was the Royal College of Music in which your reviewer spent an early evening hour. Currently excelling (on the strength of reviews) in a Respighi – Ravel double bill of opera, which sadly this reviewer did not have the time to experience, the college is enjoying a rich vein of musical form. This is due to a strikingly successful renovation of their ground floor space, and a very fine Performance Hall, suited for chamber-sized concerts such as this one. Here we had the chance to appraise the talent within the college, both at composer and performer levels.

The first piece was a world premiere, Ed Driver’s quintet Fruits Of Their Labour. Born in 2000, Driver is a composer of some repute, with recent accolades from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and a new piece for the Hermes Experiment just two of his recent notable attributes. Fruits of Their Labour proved an attractive curtain raiser for this concert, Driver enjoying the unusual quintet combination of clarinet, horn, bassoon, trumpet and bass trombone.

Based on a Czech folk song, the piece has a springlike feel as it alternates between dynamism and relative stillness, making the most of the colourful textures available. The energetic sections were contagious, but the slower passages made an arguably greater impact, their chorale-like figures filling the room.

In the latter stage Driver instructed that trumpet and bass trombone should pour water into their instruments, resulting in a sound between a gargle and something of a plumbing malfunction. While effective, the combination with the other instruments was a little superfluous, and when the music returned to its chorale figure the warmer colours were more attractive. On this evidence Driver is a composer of imagination and flair, one to keep in our sights. He received an excellent premiere performance, too, brilliantly played and conducted with authority by Michal Oren.

Next up was a piano trio with a difference. Paul Schoenfield wrote Café Music for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1987, looking to bridge the gap between the music you might hear at Murray’s steakhouse in Minneapolis and that heard at the Minnesota ensemble’s home. He achieves his aim with music of great virtuosity and considerable humour, with a great number of enjoyable and quirky themes crammed into a three-movement, 15-minute piece. Rubie Besin, Layla Ballard and Alexander Doronin played these with considerable brio, the pianist in particular impressing with his combination of technical skill and rhythmic drive. The technical demands on the players meant there was not always room to bring the humourous sleights through at their fullest, but Besin and Ballard ensured the music had a smile on its face and a spring to its rhythms, their attractive tones bringing the melodies across with room to spare. The performance that had many flourishes, while allowing time for occasional reflection.

The main work of the evening, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, has become established as a lynchpin of the string quartet repertoire, a reflection of its strength and originality. Inspired by childhood journeys to visit his parents during the Second World War, the piece uses a collection of recordings of trains before, during and after the war – spliced together with interviews from a retired porter, Reich’s governess and two survivors of the Holocaust. Their speech patterns are taken up by the stringed instruments in performance.

This performance had a few balance issues, due to the complexity of balancing loud train noises with live strings in a small performance space, and as a result the words themselves were difficult to hear at times. Yet the quartet gave a fine performance, viola player Scott Storey and cellist Sam Hwang shaping the speech melodies with expression and guile. Violinists Jordan Brooks and Sara Belic added colourful and characterful phrases themselves, bringing rich treble to the train whistles and to some of the motifs generated by the interviews.

Different Trains lasts nearly half an hour, but it says much for the musical content that it passes in the blink of an eye. The quartet here should be congratulated for their musicality and concentration, bringing Reich’s music to energetic and often poignant life.

A fine concert, then – and a reminder to make the most of all this wonderful music if it’s on your doorstep!

For information on concerts at two of London’s central music education hubs, click on the names for concerts at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. Meanwhile you can listen to the premiere recording of Different Trains below

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