Montague/Mead Piano Plus

JAMES WELLAND was impressed by the suitable ‘schizophrenia’ of this slightly repetitious concert.

cambridg cambridge university new music ensemble classical music cunme Kettle's Yard philip mead stephen montague

Wednesday 2nd March, Kettle’s Yard. Montague/Mead Piano Plus

Philip Mead (piano), Stephen Montague (composer, electronics), Cambridge University New Music Ensemble (CUNME)


Many prominent American classical composers of the 20th century were influenced by folk traditions, perhaps most famously Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. American composer Stephen Montague has also seized upon this tradition, and Wednesday’s concert focused on this aspect of his compositional vocabulary. Whilst brash, folk-song inspired music can too easily be presented by players in a trite, monotonous fashion, the efforts of the performers managed to inject a freshness and vitality to the proceedings.

The intimate environment of Kettle’s Yard set a surprising scenario for music which, at times, saturated the room with a rather loud and coarse sound . However, the performers used the multi-level space well, with the CUNME at one point cleverly playing from the upstairs gallery to give the impression of a distant marching band. Indeed, the audience, with relatively good turn out, had to be either spellbound by the performance or in some sort of strange state of tedium-inspired rapture.

Beginning the concert was Montague’s Southern Lament, a piece for solo piano that depicts the southern USA that was known to alternate between extreme activity and lethargy. Mead dealt with the distorted jazz harmonies and rhythms of the dissonant ballads and negro spirituals with a suitable degree of schizophrenia, treating the harsh-sounding cluster chords as gestural counterpoint to the disguised folk melodies. The second movement of the piece revealed extended techniques inside the piano, including strummed glissandi on the strings. This movement was a more contemplative, peaceful portrayal of folk music, with fragments of the original melodies drifting in and out, appropriately presented by Mead.

The second piece, Haiku, continued this mood, with open, fourthsy harmonies. Electronics sustained the piano sound, creating synthetic pedal points, much in the vein of the ambient music of Brian Eno and Harold Budd. This pensive performance was briefly marred by an abrupt steel drum sound towards the end of the piece.

The Hammer Hawk saw the CUNME join Mead in a work designed for amateur performers. An ebullient, tempestuous piece, with the (now characteristic) periods of extreme activity followed by rest, proved once again that Montague is not afraid to make bold compositional statements.

The programme was rounded off with After Ives… – six “studies” inspired by some of the ideas and techniques of American experimental composers from Ives to the present. Once again a variety of folk tunes were presented, some highlights being the second study, which stemmed from its energetic repeated notes, the fifth study, which involved a bizarre tour of the piano involving tapping the sides of the instrument and arbitrarily blowing up a balloon, and the sixth study, introduced by an unexpected recorded narration.

All in all, this was an energetic performance of Montague’s repertoire, especially by the virtuosic Mead who was faced perhaps with a programme of repetitiously similar material.