Bristol Proms 2015: Minimalist Baroque bridging centuries

How can we find the ties between the latter half of the 20th century and the early 18th? How can a gap of 250 years from the music of Bach and Barriere to the music of Philip Glass and Arvo Part be bridged?

On Wednesday night, Mari and Hakon Samuelsen, together with Sinfonia Cymru, attempted to fill in the blanks, as part of the third night of Bristol Proms 2015. As the curtain was raised to reveal a smoke-filled stage, the night began with leather-clad violinist Mari – the sister of the Norwegian ‘radical classical’ duo – playing a baroque partita with appropriate cutting-edge attitude and style. The tone for the night was set, the music of the modern world was about to be introduced to that of the past.

Next up was Hakon Samuelsen, illuminated on the other side of the stage, playing Giovanni Sollima’s Alone – a modern, experimental cello piece. Justly intoned slides brought to mind Terry Riley’s interpretations of Eastern musical tradition, and unabating rhythmic, almost punkish pulse of rhythm solidified the performance as a journey to the frontier of musical ideas.

© Samuel Bay
Samuel Bay

One by one, the audience would be invited to compare new and old, and forced to draw their own opinions on similarities that unite the musical spectrum. Mari and Hakon spoke warmly to the gathered audience, going on to perform a nearly 300-year-old Barriere piece for two cellos, rearranged instead for violin and cello.

The duo were then joined by members of Sinfonia Cymru, forming a quartet, to reintroduce a staple of minimalism  – Philip Glass’ Mishima. At this point, comparisons between the two genres start to become more apparent.

Minimalism has often been derided. The outspoken Pierre Boulez called its steady, pulsing rhythms “simple” – probably among many other things.

Minimalism may be shirked as too rhythmic, but a better way to think of it is as abandoning rhythm – and therefore, to an extent, melody – creating steady, unchanging pulses on which to concentrate on harmony and bring the focus to bear upon counterpoint. Compare an unwavering minimalist score to a Bach cello suite, for example, and the only difference is the rhythm’s interpretation in Baroque, against its compulsion in Minimalism.

Post intermission, the audience returned to see a larger number of instruments on the stage – the evening’s sound was to become more symphonic, as the Samuelsen siblings were joined by more members of Sinfonia Cymru to play on. The second half of the performance didn’t fail to match the atmospheric offering of the first, this time relying on fullness rather than sparse simplicity. Arvo Part’s Fratres juxtaposed a Handel Passacaglia.

Samuel Bay
Samuel Bay

The attitude of the duo remained, though, with Mari plucking the two halves of a broken strand from her bow during a performance, to the audience’s amusement and impression. Vivaldi received an airing beside Ludovico Einaudi, and Sinfonia Cymru provided the substantial power to perfectly complement the exploration.

And so the night’s sightings of the past through the lens of the present came towards a close. As the audience inspected the stage where both sides of the musical spectrum had been drawn together and carried out with the same intensity and invigorating skill, time seemed relative, and punctuated on both sides.

Glass’ Suit for Bent wrapped up the night, leading into an encore, of course.