REVIEW: Apartment House ensemble and Elaine Mitchener at Second House Holland Park (LCMF 2016)

Elaine Mitchener with Apartment House at LCMF 2016
Drawing by Geoff Winston © 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Apartment House ensemble and Elaine Mitchener (LCMF 2016)
(Second House Holland Park, 15 December 2016; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Post-minimalist composer, performer and conductor Julius Eastman (1940-1990) led a challenging and troubled artistic and personal life which ended in his early death aged 49, and tragic obscurity. Linked, often controversially, to the politics of race and gay issues, his works are now gaining fresh recognition, and a selection formed the central focus of the 2016 London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF). This review is of the first night of the festival.

Frederic Rzewski was one of Eastman's mentors whose works he often performed during the 1970s, and Rzewski's Coming Together was the opening work in the series, with the composer present.

There was something unsettling about sitting in the semi-bohemian comfort of Holland Park's Second House, one of the settings for Blow Up, Antonioni's Swinging Sixties, Herbie Hancock-scored, film parable of 1966, listening to Rzewski's tour-de-force concerning the horrific slaughter during the Attica prison riots in 1971.

Outwardly low-key, its stripped back format is that of of repeatedly returning to a short extract from the diary of Sam Melville, one of the key movers behind the uprising, who died months later from a wound sustained in the riots. It is such a minimal proposition that its success depends upon the performers investing the text with a nuanced and shaped narrative ranging from optimism - 'I am in excellent physical and emotional health' - to the questioning of it, and then to introduce the revelations of 'indifferent brutality, …',  which gave rise to the confrontations culminating in the tragic deaths of 33 inmates and 10 guards and civilians.

It was a challenge to which the accomplished vocalist Elaine Mitchener and the experimental collective, Apartment House, directed by Anton Lukoszevieze, rose with great spirit and insight, imbuing each verse with incrementally different emotional tones. Mitchener's impassioned vocal delivery captured Rzewski's overt hints of menace as Melville's words hovered in areas of ambiguity, irony and, ultimately, desperation, mirrored with acuity by Apartment House's combination of vibraphone/keyboard, flutes and piano.

The second part of the programme was taken up by Femenine, Eastman's long-form composition of over 70 minutes from 1974, which, whilst lingering on the borderline where the challenging touches the comfortably glowing, was interpreted with great sensitivity by the musicians of Apartment House.

The sound of automated, mechanical sleigh bells was insinuated in to the audience chatter which subsided with the gradual realisation that the piece was under way. Piano phrases danced lightly then with more affecting discord over the introductory passages formed of manifold structured repetitions, utilising figures that had an uncanny warmth and familiarity to them. As the layering became more complex, the electric keyboard's near-harpsichord tones added something of the flavour of Terry Riley's oeuvre to give the work a sense of temporal positioning and context in relation to the downtown New York scene with which Eastman was associated, with a gradual conscious disconnect from its easier tones giving the later sections of the composition an alarming edge.

Unfortunately, the dates of LCMF 2016 appear to have been fixed at relatively short notice (only 5-6 weeks ahead of the event, which took place on the last weekend before Christmas). Too late - for example - for this Guardian feature about Eastman from September.  Hopefully, the lead-up to LCMF 2017 will be better planned and prepared.

Performers

Apartment House:

Gavin Morrison (flute)
Emma Williams (flute)
Mira Benjamin (violin)
Anton Lukoszevieze (cello)
Mark Knoop (keyboard)
Kerry Yong (piano)
Simon Limbrick (percussion)

with Elaine Mitchener (vocalist - Rzewski)

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