Apartment House/Elaine Mitchener review – poetry and provocations | Classical music


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.

Sandwiched between those pieces were two responses to visual works, treated as graphic scores (Louise Bourgeois’ musically suggestive Insomnia Drawings and the experimental typography of Jackson Mac Low’s The text on the opposite page), plus an expanded version of Ben Patterson’s Duo for Voice and String Instrument, and some of Mitchener’s own work. Mitchener’s phonetic fireworks and command of register are instantly striking, but her dedication to the huge variety of spoken text carried the evening’s most profound moments.

Sounds of Now continues until 19 May.

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