On a Baroque and Renaissance Ground
Composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen celebrated with his own new music, where Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’ is given a few friendly nudges
Kronos Quartet and Theatre of Voices. First performances of works by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. Royal Danish Academy of Music Concert Hall. Tuesday.
Tuesday evening at the Academy’s concert hall in Copenhagen was a gala evening, and the guests were the Copenhagen contemporary music scene. Well all right, there were people you didn’t know. But there was hardly a professor, composer or composition student who hadn’t turned up to pay tribute to the composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, who turned 80 a few weeks ago.
The event was at once exclusive and supercool. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has always been a contrarian in the good, giving sense, and the menu of new works by him for four voices and four strings was a beautiful, well thought-out series of dishes.
For decades the American Kronos Quartet has made a point of playing what the other classical quartets didn’t play: from pure Renaissance music to Jimi Hendrix. They have worked before with both Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and the Danish-based elite vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, and an evening of new music served up against an undergrowth of gentle, perfectly pitched Renaissance and Baroque sounds was a perfect match between the performers and the composers.
Theatre of Voices started off in quartet formation with Holmgreen’s Song for four voices, in which repeated words and stamping, and almost comical ejaculations slowly give way to John Dowland’s venerable ‘Flow my Tears’. It was weepingly beautiful – and then the premiere performances began.
Now it was the German Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D major that formed the heart of the work New Ground. But of course Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, famed for writing for cello pitted against honking squeeze-bulb horn, gave Pachelbel’s old bass ground a few friendly nudges, so the theme already came sailing in on a new tack in the introductory presentation. The wind went out of Pachelbel, only to be magically revived, at first even without bumps and bruises, in an electrifying coda for the four strings.
Before this we had No Ground – much knottier and certainly not in D major – which with its strangled soundscape and gnarled polyphony was the perfect match for the sound-world of the Kronos Quartet.
And then the four Theatre of Voices soloists sang a gentle, tension-uncoiling vocal quartet with roots in the English Renaissance, entitled Green, and it was a joy to coast towards the interval with their pure, natural sounds in one’s ears. But the real magic came after the break, when the bright world of Green was superimposed first on the knotted No Ground and later also on the very different tonal universe of New Ground.
Especially in the first of these, the effect was absolutely outstanding. Each of the singers had an exotic percussion instrument with which to colour the unmistakably Gudmundsen-Holmgreenesque ingenuities, and the second half of the concert formed a beautiful, well-planned ending to an evening when an American and a Danish-based elite contemporary music ensemble heaped laurels on a composer who is still every bit the contrarian. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen sings with his own voice, and at the age of eighty he does so irresistibly.