Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Minimalism Unwrapped @ Kings Place, London

17 April 2015

Kings Place (Photo: Nick White)

Perhaps the indefinability of minimalism as a musical genre or style made this concert such an odd, eclectic affair. On paper the programme looked promising. The Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, were joined by guitar, drum, vocal and electronic duo Ubunoir (David Chalmin and Raphaël Séguinier) in a series of short works by Philip Glass, New York street musician Moondog and David Chalmin himself. But the mixed quality of the music proved a disappointment and was indicative of the uneven content of this ongoing ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’ series.

Philip Glass’ Four Movements for two pianos (2008) is essentially a sonata in four distinct sections, each employing Glass’ signature method of repeating and varying harmonic and melodic ideas. The first movement had a faintly Schubertian quality, with its brief, wistful, melody subject to a series of chordal transitions. The second section was little more than a simple tune played over a repeated bass. The final two movements were more classic Glass, with pacier repeated themes, although at times the music slipped into the blander reaches of minimalist scoring.

Moondog (real name Louis T Hardin, 1916-1999) continues to have his devotees. Blind from the age of 16, he mainly lived and made music on the streets of New York from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. Often dressed in a cloak and Viking-style helmet, he invented musical instruments and blended street sounds and experimental harmonies in traditional forms like canons and rounds. Minimalists, including Glass and Steve Reich, have cited him as an influence, and the Labèques and Ubunoir presented 11 of his works, all re-arranged for their own instruments. Despite the complexity of these arrangements – which in Ubunoir’s case included the addition of electronic loops and layering – the status of Moondog’s work as street music meant that it did not really stand up to scrutiny in the concert hall. Ubunoir’s repeated waves of electronic sound, intermittent vocals and percussion crashes failed to fully engage, while the Labèques’ chordal bangs and jangling of piano strings was more gestural than substantial.

David Chalmin describes his new score Star-crossed Lovers as a ‘break-dance ballet’, and it is a collaboration with Katia and Marielle Labèque. The work will be performed as a ballet in Paris in May, but even as a stand-alone piece it was possible to trace key episodes and emotions in Romeo and Juliet. Some of the musical description was a little too obvious – clashing rock drums and cymbals for the fighting; pseudo-Romantic piano melodies for the lovers; lengthy electronics for meditative moments. Overall, one couldn’t help feeling that the considerable talents of the Labèques, Chalmin and Séguinier were wasted in this concert, and the many listeners who left at the interval never to return probably felt the same.

Further details of Kings Place concerts can be found at kingsplace.co.uk

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Minimalism Unwrapped @ Kings Place, London