Review: Kairos Ensemble










Saturday 27th October, 2018

With the hundredth anniversary of the First World War fast approaching on the 11th November, memorials are being planned to mark the event. Some of these include musical celebrations. Today’s concert by the recently formed Kairos Ensemble at 3pm in King’s College Chapel was one of the first of those.

The Greek word ҝαιρός (Kairos) means ‘the right, critical, or opportune moment’. Director John Frederick Hudson writes thus about the Ensemble:

“The inception of KAIROS began as a desire to bring together a chamber ensemble of like-minded musicians with a passion for performance, particularly of American and Scottish new music. Collaboration is at the heart of this ensemble which will perform not only existing masterworks but also commissions from new and emerging composers from around the world. The additional goal of this ensemble would be to experiment with multiple art forms where possible – whether this be visual artistry, dance or opera.”

This in several ways is not at all the same as sound but there is certainly a meeting point of ideas here so the sound Festival is to be congratulated in giving this new ensemble a chance to appear as part of this year’s programme.

The concert opened with a new work for marimba by John Frederick Hudson commissioned especially for this concert. Entitled ‘they were dreamers...’ it takes its title from a poem “Dreamers” by Siegfried Sassoon who fought on but survived the Western Front. The performer on marimba was Brodie McCash one of the students, who along with Peter Ney also a member of the ensemble, raised the University’s percussion groups to particular excellence over several years.

According to the programme note, there was an element of improvisation in this work but of course unless it is explained, a critic does not know how much of that there is in the piece. It was tonal, tuneful and well written for marimba. Melody and rhythm were strongly represented and there were definite moments of sadness in the music but also of happiness reflecting the words of the poem in which the soldiers’ dream of their happier home life before the horrors of war. “They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives” and then the next line, “I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats”. I am not sure that those horrors were displayed in this music which was mainly attractive, but it did have a dramatic and explosive ending.

The next piece was really interesting. ‘Refugee blues’ (2011) by Mohammed Fairouze (b. 1985). Despite his name which comes from his father, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, he is an American composer who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music.
Refugee Blues is a setting for soprano and piano of a poem by W. H. Auden. There is an earlier setting for baritone and piano (1942) by Elizabeth Lutyens. In today’s performance John Frederick Hudson played the piano and the soprano soloist was Jillian Bain Christie. Auden’s poem written in March 1939 is unfortunately more in tune with present events, especially in America, than ever. It describes how difficult it is to be accepted as a refugee in America.

Jillian Bain Christie is an outstandingly powerful singer. She captured all the deep emotions in the poem and the music in her performance. The piano part is simple but telling. It added emotional colour to the performance. There was an interesting musical quote at the beginning of the second stanza where the words “Once we had a country and we thought it fair” are set to the tune of the Bing Crosby depression song ‘Buddy can you spare a dime’. The music was not really pop but like some of Bernstein’s music it had some of that sound world about it.

I know some serious musicians who look down their noses at Karl Jenkins. He is far too popular with the commoners and makes too much money. Well, I don’t agree with that. I enjoy the experimental side of the repertoire more than most but I remember that when people say that there were no nice tunes composed in the 20th Century they are wrong. Look at the Great American Songbook with more good tunes there than ever before of perhaps since. Again with John Frederick Hudson on piano, Jillian Bain Christie gave an attractive clear-ringing performance of the ‘Benedictus’ from ‘The Armed Man’ by Karl Jenkins.

The final piece in the programme was ‘Halil’ the Hebrew word for flute composed by Leonard Bernstein in memory of a young Israeli flautist Yadin Tanenbaum who lost his life in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The flute has a major part in this work and today it was played with remarkable emotional power and expression by Margaret Preston. Margaret spoke a few words of introduction about her playing in this piece. The other important instruments are percussion and Margaret turned to Chris Overton who explained the different percussion instruments which Bernstein uses in the piece. Many of these were doubled or trebled at different pitches to expand the palette of percussive colour in the piece. Overton suggested that the piano played once more by John Frederick Hudson to accompany the flute and the flute itself were enshrouded in the sounds of the percussionists, Overton himself, Isabel John, Peter Ney and on the timpani Brodie McCash. Actually that is a description of only part of the work. For much of it, piano and flute were right up front. Bernstein’s music is not really like that of Karl Jenkins. It is far more complex but there is a popular tunefulness that shone through in a similar way.
It was an interesting concert to mark the end of the first World War. It leant far more to the side of peace than war which is how I prefer it. Just as well I was never a soldier. If I had been, the Germans would probably have won both wars!