Arts: Classical: Velvet glove on an iron wall

3 OR 4 COMPOSERS ELECTRA STRINGS SALISBURY FESTIVAL
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The Independent Culture
A GRAND piano dolled up to the nines in a seductive red velvet dress; the rhythm of a tango hammered out quite literally on a corrugated metal wall; the divine Melanie Pappenheim wearing another dress made out of pictures from women's magazines while singing lyrics cut and pasted from their problem pages. All this plus plaintive Yemeni vocals, ethereal bowing and scraping from the Electra Strings, and a live performance of the music from everyone's favourite mobile phone ad. The group 3 or 4 Composers certainly know how to put on a show, and while the music might sometimes be a bit miserly with the notes, you can't complain about the extravagance of the staging.

The evening began with composer Helen Ottaway seated at the velvet piano, wearing a dress cut from the same cloth so that it was difficult to see where instrument ended and pianist began. If the resulting symphony of Dralon suggested we were in for a frothy confection, this was soon belied by the very short and stark pieces Ottaway played. Whether they were written by Ottaway herself or two other members of the company, Laurence Crane and Simon Rackham, one tended to perceive the music as a continuous and very effective sequence, each piece weaving a delicate pattern before ending in the dying fall of a long sustain.

The second half was devoted to the music of Jocelyn Pook, played by the ensemble against the iron wall and metal canopy-set designed by Laura Hopkins. From an electronic keyboard Harvey Brough provided drones, washes and samples, while Pook on viola joined the other four members of the Electra Strings, and singers Pappenheim, Kim Scrivener and Moshe Tamir alternated duties from a platform at the back, all lit (by Rachael Shipp) in a cool, cosmic, bluey wash. If the atmosphere was already unearthly, the entry of the sampled voice of Kathleen Ferrier for "Blow the Wind - Pie Jesu", made it all the more so. Though the music has been drilled into one's brain by the Orange TV ad, it remains a beautiful and poignant piece.

The rest of the programme served to emphasise that Pook has more than one string to her bow, with comic-cabaret songs, an evocative Celtic lament, and an angry closing sequence from the score for the short film Blight, about the M11 road-works and attendant protests. Pook's music tended to work within fairly strictly imposed limits, but with remarkable fluency, and the singing in particular was superb. 3 or 4 Composers might be all dressed up, but you couldn't accuse them of having nowhere to go.

`Voices On The Verge' by Jocelyn Pook, with the Electra Strings, Melanie Pappenheim and Jonathan Peter Kenny, is at the Islington Festival on Friday 19 June. Tel: 0171 833 3131 for details.

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