Mad Song Revue, Ballance, High Barnet Chamber Music Festival

Still modestly proportioned, the programming does not lack ambition, and I was particularly attracted by last night’s show from the Mad Song ensemble, rich in new and unreleased music.

“Chamber music” is a term that conjures up polished string quartets and piano trios, and while the festival includes Mendelssohn and Beethoven, it also includes Elizabeth Lutyens and Ailsa Dixon. At last night’s concert, however, the closest thing to mainstream repertoire was Steve Reich and the oldest piece was written in 1982.

Together, Mad Song is a young band, led by Ballance (picture below) and dedicated to 20e and 21st music of the century (taking their name from Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King). Their schedule last night was carefully crafted and, according to Ballance, took four months to put together: each of the six players featured as a solo or duo, then all came together as a sextet for substantial work at the end of each half.

Starting with the solos and duets: violinist Hana Mizuta-Spencer gave a rapturous and rhapsodic account of Missy Mazzoli Vespers, combining live and sampled sounds while letting its warm tone shine through. I had less patience with the Spectralist of Saariaho Oh Kuu, for bass clarinet and cello. Athematic slides, harmonics and multiphonics were played with sensitivity and engagement by Rennie Sutherland and Laura MacDonald, but the piece felt dated (I immediately realize 1990 is actually a long time ago).

In the second half, flautist Hannah Gillingham delighted with the jewel of Richard Causton Sleep. The winding melody was played with a seductive, breathy sound and was utterly seductive. Also – he knew when to stop. by Barbara Monk Feldman Duo for piano and percussion didn’t, but that was kind of the point. His name sounds like a mix of two great American experimenters, just like the music. Very much in the tradition of Morton Feldman, not much happened, and slowly. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it: there’s a hypnotic quality to this kind of non-developmental music, where seemingly unrelated musical events follow one another, building weighty anti-rhetoric. He was played beautifully by Kieran Crowley and James McLeish, who gave him the space he needed.

Both tutti items included a pass and a fail. The miss was that of Joan Tower noon dance from 1982. He gave each instrument a solo spot, separated by passages for the whole ensemble. These jingles were brawny and assertive, though I’m not quite sure what they were asserting, and the end result was definitely a bit small. Faster passages were propelled confidently forward by Ballance, and the players were up to the technical challenges, but the piece – while interesting to hear – failed to convince.

The finale was a surefire success: Steve Reich’s Double sextet from 2007. Here the live set played against a pre-recording of themselves and the quality of the music shone through. It was a welcome return to the pulse – mostly absent from the rest of the evening – and Mad Song delivered with cool aplomb. The nostalgic middle section, perhaps the simplest melodic passage Reich ever wrote, was haunting, while the final dash of the line had a rock-solid groove and was very exciting. Hats off to Ballance and Mad Song for an enterprising festival, characterized by this ambitious and intriguing concert that I was very happy to hear.


Gerald R. Schneider