Tansy Davies’ Iris for soprano saxophone and ensemble of fifteen players featured as part of the London Sinfonietta’s Decades on 24 January at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room. The concert marked the date of their first ever performance with a programme of works commissioned and championed by the group. Simon Haram, who premiered the piece at the Cheltenham Festival in 2004, is soloist, with Geoffrey Paterson conducting.
The title of the 14-minute work recalls the figure from Greek mythology – the winged goddess who couriered messages between heaven and earth, travelling with the speed of the wind and leaving a rainbow in her wake. The solo saxophone takes on the role of shaman – “one who walks between the worlds”, traversing different levels of reality and consciousness as the piece unfolds. These transitions between different realities are signalled by the percussion, who are linked to the solo saxophone across the piece – Davies’ gesture to the tradition in shamanic practice where percussion instruments, especially the rattle, are used to cross the thresholds of different realities.
The figure of the shaman was central to Davies’ opera Between Worlds, created for the Barbican Centre and English National Opera in 2015 and directed by Deborah Warner; in it a countertenor sings the role of a Shaman who hovers above the cataclysmic events of September 11th explored in the opera, aiding the various characters in their movement from this world to one beyond.
The Sinfonietta also performed Thomas Adès’ Living Toys. Its premiere at the Barbican was conducted by Oliver Knussen in 1994 when Adès was just 22 years old. It has since been performed over 230 times internationally and was recorded by the Sinfonietta and Markus Stenz on EMI. Vivid and virtuosic across its 17-minute span, Living Toys is a dreamlike vision of a child’s playthings coming to life, replete with soldiers in battle, a bullfight, and HAL from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its Spanish inflections reflect Adès’ creative fascination with surrealism, given substantive recent expression in his 2016 opera of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.
The concert also featured Oliver Knussen’s Coursing. Knussen played an essential role in the Sinfonietta’s history, and was Music Director from 1998-2002. The ensemble has given hundreds of performances of his music and premiered numerous works, with Knussen appearing as conductor on many of their recordings. Dedicated to Elliot Carter, the Sinfonietta premiered the first version of Knussen’s Coursing in 1979 with Simon Rattle; the final version followed in 1981, with a recording later in 2012, conducted by the composer.
Partly inspired by the furious deluge of Niagara Falls, the title suggests energy, fluidity, and great speed, evoking the immense contained force of a smooth-surfaced body of water prior to plunging over a precipice. Various versions of the long unison melody heard at the beginning course through the 6-minute piece, and all different tempi and harmonic types can be simply related back to it.