The Hermes Experiment, Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 22 November 2022, 3***, David Gray & Paul Gray

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre * – Les Rossignols
Anna Meredith * – Fin like a flower
Helen Grime ** – Council Offices
Imogen Holst ** – ‘Cinquepace’ and ‘Gigue’ from Suite for Viola
Lili Boulanger * – ‘Reflets’ and ‘Attente’
Ruari Paterson-Achenbach – to sleep on it
Mira Calix – DMe
Oliver Leith – Uh Huh, Yeah
Anon **– Lanchas para bailar
Kerry Andrew *** – Fruit Songs
Errollyn Waller **** – Tree
Misha Mullov-Abbado – The Linden Tree
*arr. Schofield
** arr. Pashley
*** arr. Denholm
**** arr. Werner

An ensemble formed from an eclectic selection of instruments – harp, clarinet, double bass and voice – The Hermes Experiment delivered a similarly eclectic programme of largely 20th Century pieces in the semi-formal environment of Symphony Hall’s Janet Blackwell Performance Space. The evening offered three sets interspersed with intervals wherein the audience were actively exhorted to grab a bevy or two. The resulting relaxed and intimate atmosphere was well suited to the young performers’ fresh and innovative approach to music making.

Their first item, an arrangement of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s ‘Les Rossignols’ started as an almost solo vocal line with fragments of instrumental accompaniment gradually coalescing into a musical whole. This arrangement provided an engrossing sense of emotional journeying in its transformational structure, from uncertainty to certainty; from question to answer. The deconstructive and reconstructive compositional method set the scene nicely for many of the arrangements to follow.

During the rest of the first set the players established a deep sense of rapport within the ensemble which resulted in a similar sense of rapport with the audience. This was attentive and communicative playing. Also they achieved something not easy to pull off in any small group of instruments which includes a singer – a feeling of equality where the voice does not disproportionately grab the limelight. This was testimony to their sensitivity and respect for one another. That said, the feeling behind the text was beautifully communicated in exquisite performances of Lili Boulanger’s ‘Reflets’ and ‘Attente’.

Their second set was where things got experimental. Ruari Paterson-Achenbach’s ‘to sleep on it’ comprised of musical fragments around which the players improvised while drawing emotionally on non-musical stimuli. Depending on your perspective this was either an exploration of the shifting roles of composer and performer in the creative process or an abdication of expressive responsibility by the composer. Either way, it was interesting.

Mira Calix’s ‘DMe’ used snippets of text messages to make a laboured point about how we are surrounded by meaningless fragments of language. It might have been more effective if all the players had treated the text more assertively; we simply couldn’t hear it. Again, it was interesting. Oliver Leith’s ‘Uh Huh, Yeah’ had the harp being untuned as the piece progressed. Interesting. The problem with these conceptual compositions is that they are, indeed, interesting, but beg the question, is being interesting enough? What, if anything, does it all mean? Perhaps not the best selection of compositions to form an engaging second set.

The third set saw a return to music setting out to speak to the audience with humanity and emotional import. Kerry Andrew’s ‘Fruit Songs’ were treated with wit and sensuality. Errollyn Wallen’s ‘The Tree’ made a haunting addition to the evening and Misha Mullov-Abbado’s ‘The Linden Tree’ rounded things off with a piece at once timeless and distinctly modern. A suitable conclusion to a performance that drew on such a range of influences and styles.

Anne Denhom – harp
Oliver Pashley – clarinet
Heloise Werner – soprano
Marienne Schofield – double bass

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