There can't be many British composers who've done time as Chuck Berry's piano player, but Charlie Barber's cv attests to time served with the Rimbaud of rock 'n' roll as well as involvement in sundry Gamelan, Japanese theatre music and African drumming projects. Based in Cardiff, Barber ran the New Arts Consort for 10 years before, in 1988, forming the first version of his present group. Mainly young, sometimes endearingly eccentric of intonation, and nothing if not flexible, the Band - which for this tour was a 12-piece - is a rare instrument, for they really seem to mean what they play.
The repertoire was a mix of minimalist banker-bets (Michael Nyman, Graham Fitkin, Orlando Gough), intriguing revisions of the past (Gluck's overture to Iphigenie en Aulide), and premieres of new works by Barnaby Oliver, Robert Moran, Andrew Poppy and Barber himself. The thematic link was borrowings from other composers, but continuity was provided by the group's light and airy aesthetic. One was conscious less of the order of play than of the satisfying wholeness of the programme itself.
Gough's Malouf is a sort of minimalist "Rock the Casbah", Tunisian modes forming a tessellation of textures, advancing and then receding almost imperceptibly. Oliver's excellent In love not given lightly used the nervy violin and beaten tambourine of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" as its source before becoming the jumping-off point for another layered composition. Barber's own premiere-piece, Re:Formation of Chaos, derived from a fragment of the instrumental introduction to Haydn's The Creation, was a Steve Reichian slow burn of metronomic percussion and eerie, sliding strings that suggested a clockwork toy winding down into entropy.
After a brief and strident run through Nyman's "Miranda" (from Prospero's Books) came the premiere of Poppy's commission, Sprung and Suspended, performed with the composer present. Poppy produced the most discordant piece of the evening, and probably the one least suited to the ensemble's strengths.
The highlight of a satisfying evening was split between Fitkin's Stark, beautifully performed, and Moran's From a Night Passage, a heart-rendingly tender lullaby whose unapologetically sentimental echoes of Samuel Barber (no relation), and even of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, fair brought a tear to the eye. Charlie Barber and Band deserve to be treasured, and warrant a more extended tour next time out.
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