New Music at Kettle’s Yard

Being unable to see the ballet left JOE BATES to blindly suffer a lunchtime of musical mediocrity.

Alka Collective Cambridge classical music Hannah Varty Ilona Jantti Jo Keithley Kettle's Yard Ligeti review

Sunday 30th January

Kettle’s Yard.

Alka Collective plays Ligeti and Hannah Vary.


Contemporary music concerts have confronted me with the bizarre: screaming popes and mad kings, smashed up violins and mashed up genres. But never a long queue. If it was the intriguing promise of a pair of premieres for dancer and ‘cello that had bought the listeners flooding in, they were to be disappointed. Disorganised and poorly played, the witticisms of compere Steven Montague were the sole highlight.

The opener, Cel, was the first of the two pieces by composer Hannah Varty and choreographer Ilona Jänti. The intimate physical dialogue between dancer and cellist was compelling. The dancer moved the player’s bow, shared her seat and turned her pages, creating a frisson rarely felt in such small scale work.

Yet the poignancy of such a private physical connection was undermined by the clumsiness of the musical setting. The music’s reaction to the dancer’s movements was comically immediate. When tapped on the shoulder, the cellist reacted with a flurry of pizzicati, as if nudged whilst practicing. This approach led to a non-sensical sequence of ideas that were not individually exciting enough to unify the work.

The choreography of the second dance work, Contortions, was still more unusual. The two cellists were placed in a variety of positions, playing their ‘cellos on their back, on their side and, most strikingly of all, spike balanced in the caring hands of the dancer. Yet whilst the ideas were striking initially, their lack of emotional content prevented greater engagement. It felt very much as if artistic concerns had been rendered secondary to the position of the ‘cellos.

Musical concerns barely got a look-in, as the contortions forced the ‘cellists to play music of arresting blandness. Varty’s attempt to conquer these practical difficulties through rhythmic predictability resulted in a monotony which never quite amounted to a minimalist trance.

These issues, however, unfortunately come secondary to the audience’s total inability to see the majority of the work. Kettle’s Yard is a tricky concert hall, and partially obscured sight-lines are a persistent problem, and as much of the dance work was at floor level the choreography had a total audience of around five people. For a work specifically written for the venue, this was an unforgivable over-sight, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The hoop was absent from Kettle’s Yard last Sunday. Apparently ‘the ceiling couldn’t cope.’

The only work not to be crippled by poor planning was Ligeti’s Sonata for Violoncello solo, which at 63 years old, was an odd choice for a concert of ‘New Music’. The piece was played with commendable energy, commitment and technique, but almost entirely without expression. Whilst the piece veers between lyricism and violence, the intense emotional content was almost entirely suppressed in favour of mechanical accuracy.

It saddening that such an enthusiastically attended concert should be so disappointing for its audience. 120 people came to see a ballet. It is a shame that they couldn’t.