Dumitrescu & Avram - Romanian Spectralists
Iancu Dumitrescu: Monoliths (alpha) (wp)
Ana-Maria Avram: Voices of the Desert (ukp)
Dumitrescu: Roots and Rhizomes (III) (wp)
Avram: Noumena (III) (wp)
Dumitrescu: Numérologie Secrète (V) (wp)
Hyperion Ensemble: Ana-Maria Avram, Iancu Dumitrescu, Tim Hodgkinson, conductors,
Conway Hall, London 21 November 2008
The available publicity was unclear about the programme. No one knew how much tickets were, either, but since no one was working front of house I guess they were free. Nevertheless, a good number of noise fans, new music cognescenti, students and poets turned up at Conway Hall on the chance of hearing something special from the legendary Romanian spectral music scene.
By the time we made it to a much-needed interval, several people were heading for the doors and my review was already sketched in my head. It went something like this:
The writer Ben Watson opened proceedings with a prose poem/rant that stood in as an introduction. It was confrontational and bristling with static. It went on too long and left most people baffled, but you had to buy the conviction of his words, even if their content might not bear much scrutiny. A bit like Dumitrescu's music actually, and just the sort of thing we had come to see. I admire the Dumitrescu recordings I have, and at his best think him at least the equal of his more famous compatriot, the late Horatiu Radulescu. I don't rate Avram's music nearly so highly, but I thought a concert of new works by both these composers would provide, at least, some visceral thrills and an interesting picture of contemporary Romanian music.
Within minutes of the first piece, Dumitrescu's Monoliths (alpha), as yet another electronic rumble initiated another bundle of uncoordinated percussion beating, Watson must have wondered if he had wasted his energy. This was awful, and all three pieces were as bad as each other. Avram, Dumitrescu and Hodgkinson all conduct in a semi-improvisatory way, cueing their performers on the fly (sometimes from a scrolling wave form of the electronic accompaniment). The absence of metre catastrophically undermined an entire dimension of musical relationships; in its place, the composer could place a greater emphasis on dynamic nuance, but since everything was characterised as either 'loud' or 'soft' this left us with precious little. The quiet bits were meant to make us feel spiritual and introverted, the loud bits were meant to make us feel naughty and subversive. It sounded cheap and dreary, modernist clichés pretending to be avant-garde counterculture.
Worst of all, there was no sense of conviction anywhere on stage. Many of the players didn't look comfortable (one clarinettist in particular) and confidence wasn't helped when the conductors visibly lost their place in their own scores. You can get away with most things if you really mean them, but all the surface bravado of this music (spectralism! aleatory! noise! far out!) evaporated in timid performances and a tiresome, entirely predictable ebb and flow that showed us nothing and surprised no one.
But then the music temporarily improved. Dumitrescu's Roots and Rhizomes III, a 10-minute maelstrom of sound, is no masterpiece, but at least it knew what it was about. A bearded chap who had staggered in in between drinks shouted "bravo!" and left again clutching his bottle. The stoner in front of me nodded ecstatically. But still, two false starts were needed to get it going. After the first, Dumitrescu glowered at his trombones and then at the audience; the second saw him step out of the auditorium altogether to glower into the foyer. Audience members looked nervous, the clarinettist blanched. When we successfully reached the end, the relief on stage was palpable and the players stamped their feet like their lives depended on it.
Things went further downhill, though. Avram brought more frantic hand-waving and clapping to the podium and then the last piece also required two false starts because Dumitrescu hadn't soundchecked his electronics. He attempted to balance the sound on the fly, even though the mixing desk was out of reach of the podium. Unfortunately the first pass was so loud it almost blew the speakers. My clarinettist was visibly shaken. When the second attempt collapsed he looked ready to go home. At the end there was rapturous applause, followed by silence on all sides. No one moved. Dumitrescu looked expectant. There may have been an encore for all I know, but I took the opportunity to leave.
See Dumitrescu live and on CD at http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/reviews/liveevents/St%20Luke's.htm [Editor]