Review: Brad Mehldau, Kronos Quartet, Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican

Kronos Quartet

Brad Mehldau, Kronos Quartet, Britten Sinfonia, cond. Rundell
(Explorations Weekend: Session Two. Barbican Hall 17th May 2014. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

The weekend of the 17th and 18th of May saw Nonesuch records take over the Barbican Centre to put on five sessions of music with several of the artists on the label's books. For many a label this would merely be a showcase event, but the depth and diversity at Nonesuch ensured that the evening was far from it.

Kronos Quartet started proceedings with a trio of Terry Riley pieces: G Song with the four strings energetically repeating and overlaying to create a rich wash, followed by the recently released The Serquent Risadome and the contemporary space age One Earth One People One Love bringing the sounds of NASA's Voyager mission into the hall. A skeleton Britten Sinfonia subsequently appeared to perform Steve Reich's minimalist reflections on Radiohead, Radio Rewrite, with a dramatic electric bass sandwiched between two percussive grand pianos punctuating the string lines from the front.

An interval gave the Britten Sinfonia an opportunity to expand to their full chamber orchestra set-up, and to welcome the 28-year old American composer-pianist Timo Andres into the fold to lead another rock-inspired contemporary piece, the tender and velvety smooth Paraphrase on themes of Brian Eno. Conductor Clark Rundell then excitedly invited Brad Mehldau to be seated at the grand, now relocated to the very front of centre stage, Mehldau's purple velvet blazer and red trousers in stark contrast to the uniform black of the Britten Sinfonia assembled behind him. For those familiar with Mehldau's smaller format work, Variations on a Melancholy Theme was a fascinating voyage. A series of call and response developments brought out the Britten Sinfonia's specific instrumental sections in turn, each conversing with Mehldau's solo piano as the principal focus, although even his piano became simply a member of the greater soundscape when the ensemble were in full swing. As the piece progressed the tone ventured towards more recognizable jazz themes, with the trumpets, clarinets, flutes and violins all developing a more blues-based inflection, bringing to mind distant thoughts of Gil Evans.

The careful composition of all the evening's pieces was at the end brought into contrast with two short individual counterpoint-heavy piano improvisations when Mehldau was recalled to the stage twice for encores. At this point effectively performing in the round, with the stage behind him populated by an enthralled Britten Sinfonia, the finale to the session qualified the evening's “Explorations” tag-line fantastically.

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