Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Gregory Rose at 70 @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

18 April 2018

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: Matthew Andrews)

Gregory Rose is best known as the founder of the contemporary-music group Singcircle (who performed their swansong with Stockhausen’s Stimmung in November last year), but as well as being a musical director in many fields he is a composer, and to mark his 70th birthday, a concert of his works was arranged at St John’s, featuring the Jupiter Orchestra and Singers, Loré Lixenberg (soprano), Peter Sheppard Skærved (violin), and conducted by Rose himself.

Much of Rose’s music is not for the faint-hearted; it is grounded in 20th-century modernism (two of his tutors studied with Schoenberg), and all the listening challenges that brings. Birthday Ode for Aaron Copland ran true to form; its opening fanfare of two aggressive trumpets – underscored by a build-up of note-clusters – dissolved into busy strings and percussion interspersed with occasional trumpet ‘squirts’. The piece closed with a gradual slowing (as of a steam engine) followed by ferocious drumming and a string cluster with a final unison note from the trumpets.

5 Schwitters Songs (for unaccompanied solo soprano) played to Rose’s love for language. Dadaist in nature, the poems rejoice in syllabic force, from the initial ‘Super-Bird Song’ (which is a collection of bird-noise syllables) to a riff on words ending in ‘–oof’ in ‘Hein-Hein!’. Rose uses spiky, angular tunes to point up the phonemes, and particularly effective were the lengthened slow trills on all the ‘ay’ sounds in ‘K.S.’ Lixenberg gave an artful account of the songs, her poly-textured voice providing timbral variety in and of itself.

The most approachable items in the programme were settings of five Old English Songs. It seemed as though, irresistibly, Rose was drawn by the well-known folksong tropes to the English pastoralists for his inspiration, as there was a whiff of Vaughan Williams in the air – seasoned, perhaps, by Tippett and Britten. The gently rocking strings of ‘Barbara Allen’ provided splendid contrast to the busier, Haydn-esque accompaniment of ‘The Ploughboy’, and the rhythmic ‘John Barleycorn’; the soprano solo in ‘Scarborough Fair’, and the song’s three-against-two lilt, made for an attractive arrangement. Alas, although the Jupiter Orchestra were excellent throughout the concert, the Jupiter Singers were less successful in holding it together: there were moments of uncertainty with the material, and the sound throughout was generally a little unfocused – a feature particularly pronounced in the tenors and basses.

More sit-up-and-listen trumpet flourishes featured in Fanfare for wind quintet (unusually featuring a bass clarinet) – this time decorating a series of rising, overlapping passages form the other instruments.

Bernt Notke’s late-mediaeval polyptych Surmatants (Danse Macabre) – featuring figures (preacher, Pope, Emperor, Empress, Cardinal, King) on a landscape, interspersed with skeletons (one of which is playing bagpipes) inspired Rose to write an eponymous work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, the death-figures being represented by orchestral dances. These seven dances were performed as a suite – a series of short movements around different rhythmic patterns on various percussion instruments. In a modern echo of the mediaeval landscape, the rhythmic variations summoned a journey through a series of machine rooms in an industrial complex – there was a feel of the ‘factory’ music of the 1920s Soviet era about them – the nadir of contemporary human despair being represented, arguably, by the inclusion of bagpipes in two of the movements.

Peter Sheppard Skærved took the solo for the nine-‘episode’ violin concerto; tackling its fiendishly complex lines with nary a glance at the score. It is a challenging piece, full of surprising moments (such as the robust horn solo in ‘Meditative’ and the shifting varieties of ‘Fragile’), and was given an impressive première that was full of energy, emotion and panache.

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More on Singcircle
Gregory Rose at 70 @ St John’s, Smith Square, London
Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses @ Barbican Hall, London
Interview: Gregory Rose, Singcircle: “There’s the hippy angle to it… six people sitting round a ‘camp fire’ singing vocal harmonics”