2012 VQ New Works Competition
St Andrew’s Church, Fulham Fields, London, UK
29th April, 2012
by Edward Clark
Tucked away in suburban west London, in a recently restored church of great beauty, was a string quartet concert containing works of truly international, contemporary dimensions. This was the climactic concert of an innovative venture launched by the enterprising Villiers String Quartet, the quartet in residence at St Andrew’s Church.
A press release was released on-line calling for composer submissions from around the world. The upper age was 35, the piece had to be less than twenty minutes long, it had to be unpublished and it had to be for a classical string quartet. Fifty four submissions were sent in before the deadline of 5th January. All were read through by the quartet and six were chosen for the semi-finals. One movement of each work was uploaded onto You Tube and over the next thirty days people could vote on their favourite. 1200 votes were cast and three finalists were thereby selected for this concert. The winner received £500 plus a recording of his work and a performance next season.
First to be played was the longest work, by Riho Esko Maimets, a Canadian national of Estonian descent. His works opens with soft, mysterious sounds, a lament appears on the cello being joined by other instruments playing harmonics. A viola pizzicato heralds the main musical material which retains a ritualistic flavour throughout, drawn from various religious traditions.
Regression to the quiet opening merely confirms a desire for nonconformity towards usual expectations of even a modern string quartet. The audience should be congratulated on maintaining absolute silence for the ethereal end which quietly descends into a peaceful close.
The second performance by the American Henry Stewart is written about two images, the first a photograph by Gary Goldberg found in The Family of Woman. This begins with a drone on cello, joined by a solemn melody on viola with high support from the two violins; lyricism appears that has a post-Barber intensity. This then dissolves back into the opening refrain. The end is sudden and laconic.
The second movement is about a hallucination the composer had as a child. His vision was a great, terrible black fire on the horizon of an empty plain. It opens has the two violins competing for attention through the use of various string devices. Like in the first movement a kind of modernism gives way to a more lyrical approach, though this time of an urgent nature. Adams replaces Barber as the main influence here. There is a thrusting quality that generates genuine excitement. Calm descends into a stoic coda. Calm after the storm perhaps.
Chris Roe was inspired to write his Jetez! (French for Throw) after seeing a couple of local French people amusing themselves by throwing stones and various projectiles off the edge of a high cliff near to the small French village of Auvillar.
Hence the opening possessed a busy, somewhat threatening impulse which barely relents throughout its very short time span. There is little content as such, more music for effect which is perhaps the main point of the inspiration. For our age of short attention spans it is undoubtedly effective.
And so to the judging by both the listeners at the well attended venue and on-line, the concert having been streamed on the internet.
It is hardly surprising not to find influences in each work: Arvo Part’s mysticism is clearly evident in Maimets's work; I have alluded to Barber and Adams in Threnody/Images by Stewart. No direct associations are to be heard in the final piece but it is so brief I was not really involved.
Maimet’s Sanctus was the deserved winner. It had a greater depth and sincerity than the other two works. It demonstrated an ability to work with original material and keep the attention of the audience, as shown by the rapt silence at its end.
The qualities of the Villiers Quartet were well shown in the performances, with evidence of careful preparation and excellent execution. No more so than in their buoyant and felicitous playing in the marvellous Haydn quartet which ended the concert in suitable style.