Mind-boggling rhythmic twists and turns

Legendary percussionist, Steven Schick, at the SOTA Studio Theatre.
Legendary percussionist, Steven Schick, at the SOTA Studio Theatre.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/ YONG SIEW TOH CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC



Opus Novus, Steven Schick, percussion, conductor/

School of the Arts Studio (Sota) Theatre/Sunday

Singapore seems awash these days with concerts of new music. The latest found specialist ensemble Opus Novus performing at the Sota Studio Theatre, a venue neither they nor most of the audience had ever visited before.

It is tucked away in a corner of a high floor and so completely encased in black that when one of the string players needed to retrieve music from backstage, she spent minutes seeking a gap in the black backdrop. Eventually, with the help of a black-clad stage hand and his flashlight, she found the way out, located the errant music and the performance could proceed.

Beyond the problems created by a totally black venue, Opus Novus created some pretty daunting musical and intellectual challenges of their own.

Their concert comprised four works. One was a new work given its world premiere, one was a work of such intellectual intensity that it rarely gets an airing and the remaining two were avant-garde classics.

Student composer Ding Jian Han provided both a lengthy programme note and a short talk on his new work, Energia, Fluxus, Fissum. He suggested that its inspiration came from physics and, in particular, nuclear fusion.

For all that, it seemed to spend most of its time harmlessly sliding around pitches. This required a lot of careful coordination from the players. Kept tightly together by the precise conducting of Steven Schick, they certainly honoured Ding with a very committed premiere.

An astonishing display of coordination came with the performance of Berio's Linea.

Two pianists (Lin Xiangning and Nguyen Le Binh Ahn) and two percussionists (Schick and Max Riefer) maintained such impeccable unity of purpose over some mind-boggling rhythmic twists and turns that it seemed as if there was some superhuman brain bending them as one to its own will.

But in terms of sheer virtuosity, nothing matched Schick's solo performance of Xenakis' Rebonds.

For 10 minutes, he danced around seven drums and five woodblocks producing, with a single pair of sticks, a variety of sounds which defied imagination.

Birtwistle's Secret Theatre could have ended the concert with a wonderful half hour of entertaining theatricals. The idea is that a large number of musicians each independently acts out an assumed character. It can turn into chaos, farce or enthralling entertainment, but it did none of these things.

Schick's tight control ensured it would never descend into chaos. The intense levels of concentration clearly visible on each player denied it any hint of farce.

And, for all the great qualities of the performance itself, the stifling acoustic of the theatre so suppressed the sound that it had the aural allure of a cheap mono recording without the clicks and crackles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Mind-boggling rhythmic twists and turns'. Print Edition | Subscribe