March 09, 2015

Adelaide Festival 2015

Filed under: 2015,Archive,Festival,Music

Daily Review
Murray Bramwell

Roses and Bryars

Gavin Bryars Ensemble
March 3. Elder Hall

Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet
and selected orchestral works
March 5. Adelaide Town Hall

One of the highlights of this year’s Adelaide Festival has been composer-in- residence Gavin Bryars. Yorkshire-born, Bryars has been prominent in minimalist music since the late 1960s, with works such as The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet in 1972. Both were first released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records and Bryars and Eno were also founder members of the celebrated experimental orchestra, Portsmouth Sinfonia.

For his recital, at Elder Hall, Bryars performed with his Ensemble – long standing friends and associates, such as cellist Nick Cooper and electric guitarist James Woodrow, who join Bryars on double bass for the opening work, the haunting first section of Tre Laude Dolce, setting the mood for a sublime program of contemplative music.

The trio is joined by soprano Peyee Chen and tenor John Potter for a set of laudas, based on short vernacular religious songs first heard in Italy in the 13th century. Opening with Lauda 4, Oi me lasso, the singers are outstanding, Bryars guiding the progress of his compositions with unfussy precision.

Bryars introduces his works with an easy informality. Flowers of Friendship, a commission from a Harvard law professor dedicated to his wife, he describes as being an odd assignment. Firstly, the wife hated vocal music and further, while dedicated to each other, she and her husband lived in separate residences. The work, an instrumental duet for tremolo electric guitar and bowed bass, is a beautifully sustained tribute – even if Bryars refers somewhat ironically to the Gertrude Stein poem, Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.

There is pleasing variation in the two hour program. Closing the first half with a series of items from the recent (2012) The Morrison Songbook, after interval, Bryars moves to the piano to perform Lauda con sordino, an instrumental performed with Morgan Goff on viola and the ubiquitous Woodrow on gently cranked electric guitar. The series Irish Madrigals is the centrepiece of the second half – nine works based on Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura using craggy, idiosyncratic prose translations by the Irish playwright J.M. Synge which Bryars came across accidentally when researching the project. Concluding with the dulcet Lauda 28 Amor Dolce Senza Pare, the Gavin Bryars Ensemble leaves the audience in something close to a swoon.

Two nights later at the Town Hall, Bryars collaborated with the Adelaide Symphony for a program which opened with the shimmering Lento composed by Howard Kempton and If Bach had been a beekeeper, a playfully intricate work by Arvo Part, like Kempton, a personal friend of Bryars.

The Porazzi Fragment, a work for strings by Bryars, incorporates a 13 bar composition by Richard Wagner which he began at the time of Tristan and Isolde and finished just after the completion of Parsifal when he was staying at a palace in the Piazza dei Porazzi in Palermo. Cosima, Wagner’s widow, describes hearing him play this musical morsel on his piano the night before he died. Bryars’s composition envelopes the fragment with a Wagnerian richness which pays homage to the composer but is never imitative.

The centrepiece of the night is Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, an early work, revived, extended and re-recorded with Tom Waits in 1993. The unaccompanied refrain which provides the title comes from an audio tape a friend of Bryars had made for a documentary film about vagrants living rough in central London in the late 1960s. In his introduction to the performance, Bryars describes the tramp who sings the hymn as “a sober, frail old man”. He continues : “I hear dignity, humanity, optimism and simple faith. There is a smile in the voice.”

It is an exceptional skerrick of song which can sustain nearly sixty minutes of music, constantly repeated until it becomes an almost maddening refrain. Bryars himself says in the process of recording the work he must have heard the voice loop more than 14,000 times.

In the Town Hall, under Bryars’ baton the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra sustain the repetitions and variations, the wax and wanings, with admirable delicacy and discipline. Opening with the unaccompanied voice gradually gaining volume, various sections of the orchestra add layers of melody without ever diminishing the centrality of the vocal theme – “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet / never failed me yet/ Jesus’ blood never failed me yet/ it’s one thing I know/ for he loves me so.”

It is a well-known work, but hearing it performed live has a different kind of intensity. It is to move from the pleasure of its serenade, to excruciation with what seem like never-ending repetitions. Then, as the music recedes into the infinity it seems to come from, we feel the sort of resolution that might come from extended meditation. Perhaps this is the musical equivalent of Samuel Beckett.

Bryars’ Adelaide Festival residency – which also included his chamber opera, Marilyn Forever and another Ensemble recital featuring The Song Company and guest Gavin Friday – has been a memorable experience. In 2014, festival director David Sefton invited the mercurial, hyper-manic, ear-popping John Zorn. This time, we have enjoyed the genial presence of Gavin Bryars. And, one thing I know – his accessible, warmly affirmative and splendidly crafted compositions never failed us all week.

Published online, Daily Review, March 9, 2015.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment