Keyboard Breakdown: LCMF 2013

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Just as I never expected to see a bicycle whizz past me at the Wigmore Hall at the recent Woodwose community opera (Kerry Andrew) I was equally surprised to see a harpsichord in a car park in Peckham. The London Contemporary Music Festival was something I only caught the end of really, attending only the harpsichord and electric organ sets of ‘Keyboard Breakdown’. My initial thoughts about tuning, temperature and how the harpsichord might fair in Bold Tendencies quickly vanished: it felt utterly right – even if I felt like a parent supervising a school disco with the volume of youthful people there. It was intriguing to see some of those listening nod their head with the music, even if their nodding revealed that they were perhaps nodding along with a piece going on in their head.

The harpsichordist Jane Chapman had devised an intriguing programme, alternating rather contemporary sounding 18th century pieces with established 20th century works and two electronic/harpsichord works by Paul Whitty. The amplified harpsichord carried well in the space, and I never felt the regular flow of patrons passing by heading to Frank’s Cafe above hindered the performance in anyway. Chapman’s playing was detailed throughout, capturing the Pièces des clavecin (1746) by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (what a name) with vivid and stylish phrasing. The first interjection between the Pièces des clavecin was Whitty’s seven pages (1) (2008) that allowed then ‘instrument to sing a rattly song’, according to the programme note. It was the Ligeti pieces that stuck in my mind: Passacaglia Ungherese (1978) was utterly absorbing, and her final item in the programme demonstrated her relentless precision and skill (Continuum, 1968). The Andriessen piece (Overture to Orpheus, 1982) made a stunning central item to the programme. Chapman literally spoke the phrases like recitative, and there was a strong structural sense to the playing that kept my attention relentlessly throughout. The Andriessen had a rich harmonic landscape, something that fitted the instrument well and allowed it to speak at its best.

The Riley Persian Surgery Dervishes (1971) became intensely loud, uncomfortably so near it’s end. I scanned the listeners to see Stephen Hough had joined me in shielding my ear drums from burgeoning sound of the electric organ. Though not able to stay for the piano set – the whole evening had started an hour later than advertised – I imagine it was as equally compelling as the harpsichord set. I left thinking I wish I’d attended more of the LCMF 2013 as this was clearly something welcome. I did wonder how much these kinds of events are creating a new breed of ‘new music’ listeners, rather than reaching out to those who crave ‘contemporary music’ without the disingenuous need to appear trendy…

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