Review: Unease, Sinfonia Cymru

You are right to be afraid of the dark.
Quite a tagline. One that was definitely in my mind as I walked into Jacob’s Market for Sinfonia Cymru’s most recent project which aims to bring ‘Classical’ music out of the concert hall. Great choice of venue for the evenings event. I had been at Jacob’s Market before in the day to wish I could buy some of the antique treasures they have on offer but this was the first time I’d been at night. Already there was an element of anxiety as I made my way past the taxidermied wildlife – up the winding stairs up to the top floor of the market to await in a make shift bar, dimly light, for the evening to begin. I bought a drink, checked my pockets to ensure no-one else had tried to rob me, and waited.

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Finally the doors opened to a low lit (theme of the evening) room which contained six chairs in a row each with its own free hung bulb with six music stands. From behind us came a violinist and sat on one of the chairs laid out. Still no music. It wasn’t until someone walked by and the light above the player’s head came on did he begin to play. The bulb then went out and the music stopped. Another player came and joined the initial violinist and again would only play when the bulb above his head was shining, triggered by the audience through motion detectors.

Four other players joined, the audience became more confident, lights were triggered, music was played. Good stuff. As the players were triggered at seperate times the melodic lines overlapped, creating a beautiful texture of gentle confusion. It was then I noticed behind the players there were headphones arranged along the wall. I went to listen and discovered the accounts of various strangers all discussing fear. The interplay play between the voices in the headphones and sporadic music was truly absorbing, one which each member of the audience to discover and experience the event in their own unique way.

Eventually the sextet began to leave, one by one, until we were once again left in the dull light. What followed next was genuinely unnerving. The doors opened and as we followed, the sextet had gone into a completely black room. No lights. Our soundtrack consisted of eerie ponticello glisses. Through the dark we wandered when a flash of light unveiled the sextet and from them came a stab of sound. Another flash. Another chord. They became more frequent until with strobe lighting and a driving baroquean ostinato from the strings. Stop (Black). Start (Strobe).

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Then as soon as it arrived, the moment was gone. As were the players. Again.
The final section of the concert was in an adjoining room and looked more like a traditional setting in the layout but had the ensemble smothered in an array of wonderful lighting and projects throughout. The music in the final part melded the live strings with electronics quite brilliantly. In three main sections the first reminded me of the soundtrack to the Danny Boyle film Sunshine. Uplifting harmony in the strings with a pulsating use of synths with a gentle build that moved seamlessly into the second part which introduced electronics beats, much in the same way as Rob Dougan may in the nineties. Heavy marching drums with unhurried strings. The final section turned up the pace with it’s mixture of strings and idm beats. My personal favourite of the three sections, as it really injected an element of grit and excitement which some classical music can lack.

Unease was a very exciting and very visually exciting piece that managed to put the audience on edge without tipping the balance and scaring them too much. The only bugbear is I felt so many elements really strived to compliment the brief of Unease, of creating a feeling of unrest, anxiety and fear, apart from the music. Not that the music was of a low quality, quite the opposite. I felt the music was stunning quite often. I simply felt it didn’t fit the brief very successfully.

It was quite often very consonant and quick to resolve. It could have been more elusive and essentially uneasy on the listener’s ear. The lions share of the bristling suspense was provided by visual and dramatic means, rather than any internal musical fright. Maybe that’s what made the evening bareable? I’m not sure. I am however very excited to see what Sinfonia Cymru, Unbuttoned and Tom Raybould do next.

Live Review: Quartet @ Four Bars

Heading to Womanby Street for a concert is a standard experience for many a Cardiff music lover. At Four Bars on Sunday 30th June, however, Sinfonia Cymru String Quartet were tuning and warming up in the corner – not your typical pub gig. Curtains closed, dim mood lighting, a selection of tables and chairs. Instantly the space is cosy, inviting. The audience was pretty varied, from students to the standard ‘classical music concert’ attendee but all were generally relaxed, chatting, enjoying a beverage in anticipation for the evening to begin.

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The programme began with the 1st movement off Schulhoff’s Five pieces for string quartet, a piece and composer I hadn’t come across before and a really great discovery. An exciting opening to the concert that had a real crunch to the sound and a great drive for its use of the Waltz form. Other highlights of the programme included Sibelius’ String Trio in G Minor, a beautiful piece that really does move the listener. Full of lush harmonies and understated melodies, lovely.

This was followed by some standard string repertoire from Haydn, Handel and Bach, all played very well. The choice of the 1st movement from Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 6 seemed odd, mainly as there is a large amount of great string quartet music by Shostakovich, and this movement is perhaps not one of his best. Finally, to finish the programme the quartet played the end of Schulhoff’s Five pieces for string quartet. This worked nicely, the piece acting as book-ends to the programme. The programme as a whole was concise and showcased some of the best qualities of string quartet music.

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The presenter, Helen Woods, added a friendly element to the concert, further removing ideas of elitism that can very often be associated with classical music. A selection of audience participation games and jokes, some cheesier than others, attempted to keep the evening light and did so relatively successfully. These games included a drinking competition, an opportunity for a “selfie” with the quartet (topical) and trying to find someone in the audience with the same birthday as a composer on the programme. Particularly successful was the live remix of some Mozart. Each table was asked to role a die, the number of which determined what bar would be played and in what order, chosen from a 6 bar phrase of Mozart. The quartet then played this ‘remixed’ rendition according to what number bars had been arrived at from the dice throws.

When I initially considered a String Quartet playing in a more ‘modern’ setting I imagined that the programme would also reflect this decision, but almost all the repertoire was written over one hundred years ago. Perhaps introducing an unfamiliar audience to some contemporary works is something to consider for the next time.

If you fancy giving classical music a go without having to deal with the etiquette that can come from attending a performance at a concert hall, Quartet is for you. Even if you’re a regular concert goer, it makes a change to be able to listen to a talented ensemble with a beer in hand.

Photos by Kevin Pick