Edge of Reflection

The Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble use Easter as the entry point for contemporary classical with an accessible programme of evocative compositions

For all the woes and worries assailing the arts in recent years – particularly in classical music with the unedifying brinksmanship over the funding and future of the Ulster Orchestra – something remarkable has been happening in the hitherto neglected field of new music.

Nearing the end of only its second season, the Belfast-based Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble has created something of a small miracle in establishing itself as a nimbly articulate champion of the contemporary and new. But despite its efforts being largely conducted under the mainstream media radar, HRSE has been finding an audience. One, on the evidence of its year-long residency in the Crescent Arts Centre, that has been growing in size and enthusiasm.

The ensemble’s seasonally accented concert Edge of Reflection – Music for Easter offers its most immediately accessible programme this season. Presented in the Crescent’s black-box Cube space, it is illuminated by candlelight – the use of scented candles a nice touch filling the room with a cosseting, comforting aroma perfectly in keeping with the reflective quality of the music on offer.

Featuring eight pieces by modern masters, English composer Stephen Davismoon and local talents Ian Wilson and Greg Caffrey (HRSE’s founder and artistic director) it focuses on music of introspective stillness that fills the room with evocative and often surprising atmospheres. The result is an intimate and haunting experience.

If contemporary music has a reputation for being 'difficult' on the ear, HRSE has been at eloquent pains to show that it is anything but. Challenging, yes. Stimulating, certainly. But accessible, too.

Introductions to each piece by members of the ensemble helpfully provide useful pointers to what to listen out for, the playing of the five-strong group – on flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and céleste – offering even more persuasive advocacy.

Taking its title from a poem by WB Yeats, Caffrey’s 'These are the Clouds About the Fallen Sun' carries itself with a bright poetry all of its own, Emma Roche’s birdsong-like flute singing high above Sean Morgen-Rooney’s liquescent piano line in a delicately inked-in ambience that steadily darkens into a baleful beauty that Yeats would surely have approved of.

Roche and Morgen-Rooney share the evening’s most familiar piece: Arvo Pärt’s 'Spiegel im Spiegel'. The allusion of its title – 'mirror in mirror' – to an endlessly repeated perspective stretching into infinity, makes it seem like an exercise in musical watercolour. If Roche’s light-as-air alto flute loses some definition against the bright ringing clarity of a crisp Steinway piano (her playing erring on the side of timidity) it is nonetheless a bewitching experience.

American maverick Morton Feldman’s 'Duration I' creates chance harmonies and rhythms to conjure whispered, wispy effects that evaporate as soon as they're formed. Despite the surface simplicity, the periodic tension between stillness and reflexive responses results in a brooding poetry of its own, much like a sombre extended haiku.

More pensive, still, is Salvatore Sciarrino’s 'Melencolia I', distinguished by David McCann’s doleful, agitated cello and Morgen-Rooney’s pensive rippling piano. Inspired by an ancient stone circle in County Fermanagh, Ian Wilson’s colourful 'Timelessly This' is a picturesque fantasy that calls to mind the dislocating and richly detailed fairy-tale art of Richard Dadd before ending with becoming stillness.

Music for Easter Hard Rain

The evening’s most poignant experience is provided by Joanne Quigley’s gorgeous violin in the piano-accompanied 'Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus' ('Praise to the Immortality of Jesus') from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Composed in a German prisoner-of-war camp, its sweetly moving sense of compassion and ardent conviction in the promise of salvation produces rich, involving textures and harmonies.

In stark contrast, Stephen Davismoon’s 'Timeless Shades of Green' was written while waiting for the birth of his son. It's appropriately pregnant with suspended phrases, expectant interludes and the pressing anticipation of the unknown, all perfectly realised by piano and Sarah Watts’ evocative bass clarinet.

The full ensemble then reunites for the terse but spacious soundscape of Sciarrino’s 'Lo spazio inverso' (‘The Inverse Space’), its beguiling sense of stasis perhaps needing a touch more detail and definition but highly effective nonetheless.

Pedantic cavils aside, as one the freshest, most exciting, intelligent and intriguing musical developments in Northern Ireland in too long a time, the Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble are clearly going from strength to strength. More from them is eagerly awaited.

See the Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble next at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on Wednesday, April 6 with 'Vienna - Music of the 2nd Viennese School'. Tickets can be booked here. For the full list of upcoming performances and events visit www.hardrainensemble.