In flash flood week, the world premiere of Toboggan Houses was too timely. Who doesn’t currently feel atop a crumbling cliff, metaphorically or otherwise. The composer laura melon and librettist Cordelia Lynn have created a work for soprano and ensemble on the eco catastrophe. A woman, overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, finds a way to take positive action. Directed and designed by Katie Mitchell and directed by Sian Edwards, Toboggan Houses was powered by 16 bikes: an off-grid world first that seems crazy, and almost was, but couldn’t have been more serious.
Out of the darkness, a roar of pedals set in motion the piece, created by volunteer cyclists on bikes adapted to the back of the Salle des Fêtes stage (all credit to the technical team who made it , and runners who had to continue for 90 minutes). Eventually a few lights came on, illuminating the conductor’s and musicians’ stands, as well as powering a control desk – which only shows how many spinning lessons it would take to light up the entire Southbank. Center.
The London Sinfonietta, sponsor of the play, then joined. Clapping and slamming, blowing or breathing in their instruments, their sounds gradually transformed into music, both impressionistic and sharp, meticulous, multi-layered. A whirlwind of recorded voices (using public submissions) cataloged the losses and changes, in insect and bird life, weather, landscape, remembered from childhood. The phenomenal Australian actor-soprano Jessica aszodi, cycling throughout, was the pivot.
With so much sensory activity, bikes still active in the shadows, I didn’t get the full story: the captions (needing more energy) would have helped, even if the overall shape was clear and unforgettable. Bowler, used to big subjects, is working on an opera, The blue woman, for the Linbury Theater at the Royal Opera next year, on violence against women. Katie Mitchell, in a post-show chat, said she was doing more pedal work in Berlin, and a production of The cherry orchard from the point of view of the trees, which maybe wasn’t a joke. It was an evening that made one think, even if the lasting impression was, above all, of the slender power of all these bikes.
the Manchester Collective, performing at the Spitalfields Music Festival, were nearly shot by Covid. Despite a last minute staff change – you never would have known – they carried out a richly diverse program, designed by the composer Edmond Finnis, music for string quartet. Finnis has collaborated frequently with the collective, notably in his haunting work The center is everywhere (2019) for 12 players. Alongside Philip Glass (String Quartet No 2, “Company”) and Stravinsky (Three Pieces for String Quartet), Finnis chose among others the exuberant You Belong to Me (2016) by Mica Levi, his fellow student at Guildhall days and now. , film composer. Levi transforms simple triads and trills into new sonic worlds, the top three instruments flying freely above the often explosive ground cello.
The Finnis String Quartet No.2 has its world premiere, a finely balanced work in four short movements that utilizes all the mysterious timbre and harmonics of four strings, four instruments without haste or urgency, and with minimal use of the vibrato. The slow dialogue between the instruments had the meditative feel of the 17th century English consort music of Lawes or Purcell. Or that’s what it seemed at the first hearing. I might think otherwise during a second encounter with this bewitching work, which I hope will be soon.
Wigmore Hall was crowded at socially remote capacity for the Elias String Quartet playing Haydn’s Quartet Op 64, no.6, expressive and playful, and Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor, variously Elvish, sincere and wild (broadcast live on Radio 3 and available on BBC Sounds). They ended with a persuasive arrangement, by Elias second violinist Donald Grant, of the Scottish folk song I’m Asleep, Don’t Wake Me – which, this time, is not addressed to the fully alert audience. from Wigmore Hall.
Ratings (out of five)
Toboggan Houses ★★★★
Manchester Collective x Edmund Finnis ★★★★
Elias String Quartet ★★★★