Hidden among this year’s thicket of anniversaries is the centenary of Charles Mingus’s birth – 2022 also marks 50 years since the first performance of his String Quartet No 1, commissioned by Whitney Museum of American Art as part of a programme celebrating the poet Frank O’Hara.
The piece, for voice and string quartet (violin, viola and two cellos), only received its European premiere three years ago. It’s more Bartók than blues, a compressed scrawl of diligent counterpoint that remains persistently entangled for about 10 minutes. Opening Music in the Round’s Sounds of Now series, new music group Apartment House and Elaine Mitchener gave a relatively straightforward account of this expressive and occasionally passionate work. I’d be intrigued to hear a more languid interpretation – perhaps on a long overdue premiere recording.
This was the only small disappointment in a stirring hour of music mostly drawn from the American experimental music tradition. In a post-concert talk, Mitchener underlined the centrality of struggle to the programme’s featured poets – from Susan Griffin’s declamations in Christian Wolff’s I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman, to Jeanne Lee’s provocations in the striking Blasé by saxophonist Archie Shepp. Lee’s Mingus Meditations – a duet for voice and double bass, originally recorded with Dave Holland – was a real treat, with nimble bass work from the impressive Neil Charles supporting Mitchener’s characterful chattering.