Enda Bates on his visit to hear Irish contemporary music performed in Poznań, Poland by the Sepia Ensemble

A report from composer Enda Bates on his visit to Poznań as part of The Zooming: Ireland & Poland, a series of two concerts by the Sepia Ensemble in Dublin and Poznań in February 2015.

My first impression of Poznań is one of contrasts. My journey from the airport takes me first through retail parks and giant blocks of residential apartment complexes before stopping amidst a massive motorway overhang. However, as I walk to my hotel in the centre of town the roar of train and car quickly gives way to the soft bells of trams and footsteps on cobblestones. My base for the weekend is located just off the old square of Stary Rynek in the beautiful Old Town at the heart of Poznań, a world away from the encroaching modernity that surrounds it.

However, that modernity does not solely consist of relics of the socialist era. As I am shown around the Aula Nova concert hall, built in 2006 specifically for performances of chamber music and the venue for Saturday’s concert, I become acutely aware of the lack of a comparative venue in my own hometown of Dublin. Constructed by the IJ Paderewski Academy of Music, this wonderful venue, suitable for both acoustic and electroacoustic music, is also situated across the road from the Auditorium of the University of Poznań, while a short walk across Park Mickiewicza brings you to the neoclassical opera house of the Grand Theatre. This wealth of music venues, along with the Imperial Castle (with an Irish bar in the basement!) huddle around Park Mickiewicza and the gigantic crosses erected to commemorate the lives lost during the 1956 protests. Weighty histories and cultural, socioeconomic contrasts are again in mind later that evening as I pass by expensive cars and sleek, besuited crowds attending an opera at the University Auditorium. I, however, am on my way to meet Stanisław Suchora, my host and manager of Sepia Ensemble, to attend a lively concert of heavy metal music at the Anarchist Federation venue in squat Rozbrat!

The following morning I present a talk on Irish contemporary music at the Academy of Music, which leads to some thought-provoking discussions with a Polish musicologist and the host of a weekly show on contemporary music on Polish radio. Contrasts were again a dominant theme as I fly through a long and yet not even nearly complete list of Irish composers and ensembles. McLachlan, Barry, Dennehy, Buckley, Deane, O’Leary, Mulvey, Buckley again, Bennett, Ring, Cleary, Concorde, Crash, Quiet Music, amplified music, electronic spatial music, laptop orchestras and choirs; so much music and so many wonderful contrasts. Later that afternoon as I listen to flawless renditions of pieces from that evening’s concert, my own included, I am struck once again by the precision and technique of the musicians of the Sepia Ensemble, just as I was in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin the month before for the first concert in this series. Founded in 2012 by composers Artur Kroschel and Rafał Zapała, this ten-piece ensemble of graduates and students of the I. J. Paderewski’s Academy of Music demonstrate remarkable finesse and expression for such young musicians, and they handled the varied demands of both programmes extremely well.

The concert that evening draws a diverse crowd of all ages, and while the musical content is again filled with contrasts, there are perhaps a few recurring themes. The concept of interruption and of systems breaking down is an aspect of a number of works in the programme, most explicitly in John McLachlan’s Extraordinary Rendition and Ed Bennett’s My Broken Machines. Both of these pieces contain periods of great calm and stillness; however, this serenity is fleeting and violent musical outbursts are never far away. The McLachlan piece in particular is wonderfully performed by Tomasz Sośniak (piano), Olga Winkowska (violin) and Anna Szmatoła (cello), with a spectacular and highly appropriate combination of precision and aggression. Jenn Kirby’s Moments for clarinet, trombone, cello and percussion was in some ways a reversal of this approach, with a busy moment-to-moment form occasionally interrupted by short periods of calm, and one explosively dramatic moment of rhythmic regularity about three minutes in. There is a certain chaotic sensibility too in Gráinne Mulvey’s entropy, although perhaps in a more explicitly abstract fashion as the string quartet weaves disparate types of material together in intriguingly varied ways over eight short movements.

Mary Kelly’s Mime is a brief, focused work for solo trombone which opened the concert and followed a similar path to the more extended exploration of instrumental technique of Ewa Fabiańska-Jelińska’s Miniatures solo performed by Wojciech Jeliński in Dublin the month before. Judith Ring’s Swelt Belly at Dawn provided another contrast as highly lyrical passages and insistent rhythms intersect with more abstract and luminous instrumental textures, perhaps alluding to some of the more directly expressive pieces to come in the second half of the programme. As with much of Ring’s music this work allows for a significant degree of interpretation by the performers (strongly encouraged by the composer), and in this, their second performance of this work, the Sepia Ensemble again demonstrated an impressive combination of expressiveness and precision.

The second half of the programme began with Siobhan Cleary’s The Whitening, a plaintive and affecting work whose spaciousness and sparseness contrasted strongly with the often quite busy material of the first half. The title is an alchemical term for the purified state which follows from a harrowing and chaotic first stage, so its position in the programme at the start of the second half represented a nice piece of programming in its callback to entropy and the chaotic mental states of earlier works. Cleary’s piece, along with my own from the cusp of sleep, were perhaps the most directly expressive and sparse works in the concert, and both are idiosyncratic in terms of their instrumentation. The Whitening was originally scored for piano and ondes martenot, and rearranged here for piano and violin, while my own work for string quintet consisted of a standard quartet with double bass, a configuration which surprisingly makes very few appearances in the chamber music repertoire.

The final work of the concert, Andrew Hamilton’s Frank O’Hara on the phone piece, here displayed the same exuberantly glitchy sensibility as in his recent work for the Crash Ensemble, music for people who like art, which was one of the standout performances of the 2015 New Music Dublin festival. Catchy is not a term you would often associate with contemporary music (for better or for worse), but it was certainly applicable here. Just as Kazimierz Serocki’s Swinging Music kept toes tapping long after the concert in Dublin had ended, fragments of Hamilton’s work could be heard being hummed and whistled by numerous concert-goers as they filed out of this beautiful concert hall on Święty Marcin. It was a fitting and memorable way to end this concert and indeed the concert series, although the programming of this work in the upcoming Poznań Music Spring Festival suggests that this is perhaps more of a beginning than an ending, which is welcome news indeed.

Enda Bates

The Zooming concert series took place in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin and Aula Nova, Poznań on the 1 and 28 of February, 2015. The artistic director of the project is Artur Kroschel, and the main organiser is SONORA music agency with the Association of Irish Composers. The partners and co-organisers of the project are the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Hugh Lane Gallery, the Embassy of Republic of Poland in Dublin, the I. J. Paderewski Music Academy in Poznań, The Contemporary Music Centre, Culture Ireland and the Embassy of Republic of Ireland in Warsaw.

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