REVIEW: Eve Risser White Desert premiere at La Courneuve

Children from the Ecole Elementaire Charlie Chaplin, La Courneuve (foreground)
Antonin Tri-Hoang, Fidel Fourneyron, Eivind Lønning of the White Desert Orchestra
Photo Credit: Stephanie Knibbe

White Desert - World Premiere
(Centre Culturel Jean Houdremont, Courbevoie, France. 24th March 2015. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

As Alsace-born composer/pianist Eve Risser observed with quite some emotion at the end of the evening, last night's remarkable premiere of her work for ten-piece ensemble and two choirs White Desert represented the first sight of a concept which she has been visualising for at least seven years.

Can the premiere of a project this big - not far short of a hundred participants were involved - but also this personal, define what a musician is about? Within limits, because both she and the work are bound to continue to develop. However, particularly for Risser, who has proved her adaptibility in a whole host of activities and groups - her website lists twelve!- last night certainly felt like an "apologia pro vita sua." This was a significant statement about how she as musician, as artist, as composer, as leader, can be herself, stand up to her full height, use her massive quiet energy and determination to not just have the vision but also see it through to completion.

 White Desert Orchestra
Photo Credit: Stephanie Knibbe

The main delight was to hear the composition. The variety, the scale, the sheer ambition of it left a big, and almost entirely positive impression. If the test of any music heard for the first time is how much of it one would happily hear again, and right away, then I would say that of all but about ten minutes. I'll come back to those. There were moments when the joyous power of Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden bands past were right there, notably in the tailgate Roswell Rudd-ish trombone of Fidel Fourneyron.  

There moments which were not just impressive when Risser used the scale and the vast tonal palette of her ensemble to suggest the formation of rocks, the elemental power of nature, something she is able to do as convincingly as any composer today. She is helped in that task by the authority of her rhythm players, notably Sylvain Darrifourcq, emerging as one of the handful of top percussion players in Europe. He started off proceedings with a huge bass drums you normally find in a Verdi Requiem, and continued to propel the band with exemplary skill, hand in glove with both premier league bassist Fanny Lasfarges, and guitarist Julien Desprez. The band came also came cross as a completely unified group, absolutely giving it their all.




Theremin player at the White Desert premiere
Photo Credit: Stephanie Knibbe

But this was only part of the story. There was one moment of real theatrical power, which Stephanie Knibbe has caught brilliantly, in the moment, in the photo above. There had been a quiet episode when flautist Sylvaine Hélary had been given free rein to capture the sounds of birds in the air, in that tradition of professionally schooled, beautifully-toned French flute-playing and teaching that goes from Paul Taffanel to Marcel Moyse and Alain Marion... when suddenly another, variably pitched sound came from much nearer to the audience. It was child of about seven carefully conjuring sounds out of a theremin. His action provided the cue for the stage to be invaded by a horde of young children, who gave a captivating, magc, uninhibited and lively performance. Risser herself abandoned the piano during that part, and let one of the children, standing, take charge. The leader of the children's group, music educator Azraël Tomé came across as a completely inspiring presence.

The only aspect of an exhilarating night which I found hard to come to terms with was the contribution of an amateur choir based at the local conservatoire. They were moving from unpitched to pitched sounds, inspired by Ligeti. The ending of a piece like this, I felt, really needed the professional energy of trained voices to lift the whole piece to the conclusion it was heading to, deserved, and needed. But, hey, you can't have everything...

Hats off to Xavier Lemettre and Banlieues Bleues and a raft of local supporters and sponsors for having given Eve Risser the right conditions to provide such a complete and fascinating definition of herself. They did it "without having heard a single note of the music," Risser noted with gratitude afterwards. It was a privilege to be there.

Links: BANLIEUES BLEUES WEBSITE
Eve Risser Interview
Franck Bergeron's review for Jazz Magazine, posted two hours after the end of the concert

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