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Review: Power of Ten at the Sage Gateshead

American composer-in-residence David Lang programmed a challenging 10th anniversary concert at Sage Gateshead

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American composer David Lang
American composer David Lang

by Rob Barnes

In the 10-sided performance space that is Hall Two, American composer-in-association David Lang programmed the Power of Ten as part of the Sage’s 10th anniversary celebrations.

Each selected piece had a connection with the number 10, as entertainingly explained by the composer who had flown in from New York for the event.

This was a beguiling and adventurous concert of rarely performed pieces, exploring the boundaries and possibilities of music. Undoubtedly it benefited hugely from being seen as well as heard.

Groups of Royal Northern Sinfonia musicians played from the floor, with the audience around them in a horseshoe, which contrived to make it involving and intimate.

The 20th Century Romanian composer Gyorgy Ligeti provided the introductory Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet (1953), which, for all its lack of traditional musicality, accentuated the possibilities in the dynamic balance between instruments.

The wonderfully named American modernist composer Wallingford Riegger’s Study in Sonority for 10 Violins (1927) followed, with the group led by Bradley Creswick.

Full of disciplined dissonance and much pizzicato playing, it was a tribute to the players who took this testing music in their stride as they would a Beethoven symphony.

Greco/French composer Iannis Xenakis’s 1956 work ST/10 closed the first half – written for 10 instruments including bass clarinet and harp. ST is short for stochastic, meaning associated with randomness, and in this case computer-generated randomness.

Academic theses have been written on this approach to composition, and while it took the audience to the outer reaches of the galaxy of music, it just shows what is possible for an unimpeded imagination.

Sage Gateshead and the New York Philharmonic co-commissioned David Lang’s ‘almost all the time’, a piece for a string quartet given its world premiere at the concert.

It was mesmerising and emotionally direct, a recognisable trait of a composer whose work defies easy categorisation. The music was constructed in orderly phrases of 10 notes in length... almost all the time, as the composer reflected mischievously.

The grand finale, with 20 orchestra players crammed onto the floor, was a gem of a symphony written by Armenian/American Alan Hovhaness – his 10th out of 67 such works, completed in 1956.

There were many influences including Armenian folk and Indian in the music, which fairly rattled along and included some fine tubular bells from John Poulter.

The evening’s guest conductor James Weeks has a world-wide reputation as a composer and conductor in this style of music and the players couldn’t have been in safer hands, with his light and assured touch.

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