The Kings Place Festival remains one of those items in the calendar that need to be remembered in advance, coinciding as it does with the end of the BBC Proms season, but invariably the festival proves to be well worth the diary entry. For the first evening of the four day event, Hall Two in the Kings Cross complex played host to its home ensemble, the London Sinfonietta, with an unusual array of instruments at hand for composer portraits of Arvo Prt, Julian Anderson and Elliott Carter.
The reputation of each composer rests largely on orchestral or vocal works, so it was refreshing to approach their canon from a different perspective. In the case of Prt this meant an examination of an early work, the Partita, which scampered along in the less trumpeted neo-classical style of his first published compositions. Clarity in the close acoustic was provided by an unnamed pianist , who unfortunately was not credited anywhere all evening, either in the programme or in one of the otherwise helpful introductory addresses.
The Prt portrait was given in near darkness, but hopes of contemplation during Spiegel Im Spiegel or Fr Alina were impeded by extraneous noise backstage. Finally all was calm for the Mozart-Adagio, an elaboration for piano trio on a slow movement from one of the composers Piano Sonatas, and then the celebrated Fratres, feather light under the violin of Jonathan Morton and the surety of John Constables accompaniment. Overall a mixed bag, then, but a reminder too that while Prts music may be relatively slight, its emotional impact can trump that of far more complex pieces.
This proved to be the case with some, but not all of Julian Andersons work. Though the Prayer for solo viola was extremely well played by Paul Silverthorne, there was an emotional dimension missing and the effects felt a little dry. Happily this was addressed by the brightly lit Colour Of Pomegranates, brilliantly played on the alto flute by Michael Cox, accompanied again by Constable, and The Bearded Lady, first of several dynamic contributions from clarinettist Mark van de Wiel. Anderson likes to use bell-like sonorities in his music, and these were best demonstrated in the opening piece Bach Machine, which held an attractive rhythmic swing as it updated the masters music in a kind of crooked, Jacques Loussier style.
Finally the grand old man of American music had a portrait to himself. The indefatigable Elliott Carter is still writing music at the age of 102, continuing to challenge performers and listeners alike. That is not to say his music is hard work, for it brings ample rewards of sonority, pulse and rhythm, and the pieces on display for this concert had plenty of wit and no little charm. A novelty began the program, with Serge Vuille performing the wild ricochets of two of the Eight pieces for timpani. They acted as a kind of call to arms, which Van de Wiel built upon with the superb clarinet piece Gra, perhaps the most meaningful and instantly appealing work of the evening.
The theme running through this selection was birthday tributes, with dedications to Boulez (both parts of Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux) and Carter himself (the closing Figment). These had imagination, melodic surety and incredibly fine performances at their disposal. Figment, performed by cellist Timothy Gill, proudly proclaimed its composer in full voice at 85 a mere spring chicken in comparison to his status now!
The audience may have diminished through the evening but the commitment was clear in those that remained. That several composers were among the later of the three recitals says much for Carters standing in modern classical music, and with insightful programming we learned a lot about this inspirational composer.