wed 29/11/2023

Basel Saleh, Sansara, United Strings of Europe, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - music of sanctuary and solidarity | reviews, news & interviews

Basel Saleh, Sansara, United Strings of Europe, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - music of sanctuary and solidarity

Basel Saleh, Sansara, United Strings of Europe, St Martin-in-the-Fields review - music of sanctuary and solidarity

Compelling singing and playing compromised by an overstuffed programme

Sansara and United Strings of Europe at St-Martin-in-the-Fields©Nick Rutter

This collaboration between two young and exciting ensembles, the choir Sansara and the United Strings of Europe, had its heart in a good place.

It explored notions of sanctuary and solidarity with those suffering displacement, through a diverse roster of composers with first-hand experience of these issues. The problem, though, wasn’t to do with any one particular piece – they all had their merits – but with an overlong programme with too little variety that left me feeling I’d listened to the same chord for two hours.

And those two hours are very much the point. The concert was originally billed as an hour long, without interval. By the day of the concert the website was saying 75 minutes. In the event it was only just short of two hours, without an interval, on the unforgiving pews of St-Martin-in-the-Fields. This is a serious failure of arithmetic on someone’s part, and meant that the headline piece, the European premiere of Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands, didn’t start till well past the numb bum stage.

United Strings of EuropeI should say that the playing and singing were of the highest quality. Sansara, led with quiet authority by the impressively still Tom Herring, were right on the money, in terms of tuning, blend and – especially – pin-sharp diction. The United Strings of Europe (pictured above), under their enterprising leader Julian Azkoul, played with complete conviction and a lovely range of sounds, in combinations ranging from full ensemble to chamber groupings with theorbo and viola da gamba.And all the pieces had striking moments, even if several outstayed their welcome somewhat. But as the programme as a whole was predominantly slow and sustained music (natural for the subject matter), and featured drones aplenty in both string and vocal writing, I longed for a change of pace or character. The only really energetic bit was the first of two improvisations by the Syrian oud virtuoso Basel Saleh. This had a joyful swing and vigour, and a strong pulse from the tambourine, that was pretty much absent elsewhere.Sansara and the United Strings of EuropeNatalia Tsupryk’s A Quiet Night was very affecting for sure. The Ukrainian composer expressed solidarity with the people of Ukraine (the piece was premiered in August to mark six months since the Russian invasion) by setting defiant words by Volodymyr Zelensky to a rich, Slavic chordal progression. It was marred only by a startling contribution from the virtuoso polyphonic sneezer sitting directly behind me. Lebanese composer Houtaf Khoury’s The Journey (a world premiere) was heartfelt and passionate but had long stretches of fairly nondescript music. As the harmony soured in the middle section I liked it a lot more – as I also liked Azkoul’s unflashy violin solos and the rich bass playing of Jan Zahourek.

Caroline Shaw is a fascinating composer but for me To the Hands didn’t show her at her best. It is a response to a Buxtehude cantata (which was heard in a fine reading earlier on) but felt a bit diffuse, lacking a strong thread. It pressed all the usual Shaw buttons, but the sum total didn’t quite add up. The most powerful movement had the singers reciting the statistics of displaced people around the world, over overlapping string arpeggios which seemed to sag under the weight of human misery. The singers fully inhabited this moment, as committed here as they were throughout, but the cantata, like the whole evening, felt stretched, a bit too big for itself.


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