A Question Is Better Than An Answer

Metaphysics and wine adds up to a successful concert for RUTH MARINER.

bridget riley Classical ives Kettle's Yard Mark Gotham NEW MUSIC New Music Group NMG ruth mariner

New Music Group with Mark Gotham: A Question Is Better Than An Answer, Wednesday 23rd November, Kettle’s Yard, £4


Tributes to civil-rights heroes, metaphysical musings, and a dash of Latin flavour were the subject of the New Music Group’s A Question is Better than an Answer, at Kettle’s Yard. Advertised as ‘concert of mystery and intrigue,’ Cambridge University New Music Ensemble treated its audience to a diverse selection of contemporary masterpieces under up-and-coming composer/conductor Mark Gotham.

The evening got going with a political number, Luciano Berio’s O King. Written as a tribute to Martin Luther King, the text consists of just the name of the man himself, emerging gradually from the texture of the ensemble. This was sung brilliantly by soprano Lucy Cronin, although I would have liked to see her standing, without the score.

Next on the bill was Intermittences by geriatric neo-modernist Elliot Carter who is now 102 and still evidently loving atonality. The fiendishly difficult piece was executed with astounding precision by pianist Liam Paterson and his comedy page turner (yes, we can still see you even if your method is ‘crouch down and grab’).

A spot of profundity was provided before the interval with Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question and György Kurtág’s response, The Answered Unanswered Question. Apparently, metaphysics does make for good music! The Ives layered a trumpet’s melodic quest for meaning and sense, and the wind section’s flippant ‘responses’ against the slow, contemplative notes of a background string section.

This duo was possibly the highlight of the evening, the trumpet playing was stunningly well-phrased, pouring down on the audience from an unseen place on the balcony. The Kurtág featured some wonderfully string textures, again playing with the space, this time behind the audience, giving a far away, etherial quality. This was Gotham at his best: under his baton everything was well phrased and shaped. He understood the music, its intensity, and how to reach the most interesting facets of each work.

After an interval of too much wine and some lurid, yet fantastic artwork by Bridget Riley, we recommenced with Dallapiccola’s Musica Notturna a work based on a poem by Antonio Machado. It’s not heard very often, and although executed very well by NMG, it’s easy to see why the work’s insipid character doesn’t permit it too much airing.

The concert ended on a high though, with Villa-Lobos’s Chôros no.7 (Settiminio). Although Villa-Lobos’s work is sometimes structurally difficult, there was no feeling of disorganisation here, but, instead a great balance of modernism and fun; the work is dissonant yet playful and rhythmically astute. It’s a colourful patchwork of melodic quirks and conversational snippets between the players. It was a wonderful way to bring all the players together and conclude the evening.

The night was not flawless. Players did not always engage with their audience and did not always play in tune, but despite these niggles it was a great night of music, art and drink. We should thank the NMG for providing Cambridge with an alternative concert of modernist music for those who want something a little out of the ordinary.