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June 6, 2011 6:35 pm

London Sinfonietta, Kings Place, London

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Bach and Beethoven did it. In a later era Chopin and Liszt were renowned for it. Improvisation was once a central part of a classical composer’s art. A contemporary of Beethoven tells us his greatest works were the ones he never wrote down. But composers today are as unlikely to be caught improvising in public as making an appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.

At some point a divergence has occurred. Improvisation has been left to musicians in the folk and jazz domains, where it is a respected source of inspiration, and much of the interest of the London Sinfonietta’s “Written/Unwritten” weekend at Kings Place was the opportunity to connect the dots between various areas of music.

Each of the main events across the three days involved visitors from a different discipline: the Norwegian folk violinist Nils Okland; British jazz pianist Matthew Bourne; and KX Collective, a group of young people who have worked closely with the London Sinfonietta on performance events. In each case the guests looked after the “Unwritten” half of the bargain.

For Okland, at Thursday’s opening concert, this meant wrapping up a selection of “Written” 20th-century pieces in improvisations as intricately tied as a well-made parcel. He plays the Hardanger fiddle, an eight-stringed violin with resonating understrings. The sound is more plangent than an ordinary violin and his extemporisations on mostly traditional tunes were simple and homely – very much folk music of the north, reminiscent of chill Scottish summer holidays. A string quartet, percussion and occasionally piano joined in.

It might seem unlikely that any fully composed works could connect to this, but the programme had been cannily devised. Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, written just after The Rite of Spring, are similarly based on simple, folk-like ideas. A movement from Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Viola sang a hypnotic Romanian folk tune and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres – the one work that wanted to plumb emotional depths – used its minimalist language to aspire to spiritual ecstasy.

Okland’s was not virtuoso improvisation as Beethoven or Liszt might have offered, but more modestly appealing on its own terms. 

 

www.kingsplace.co.uk

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