The Smith Quartet

The Smith Quartet and Gerard McChrystal bring Belfast's Harty Room to life, Graeme Stewart reports

At the Tipperary opening date of this Irish tour, saxophonist Gerard McChrystal described it as 'a celebration of living music' - performing contemporary music by present-day Irish composers. The varied programme is an eclectic flavour of traditional influences, fused with a pinch of jazz and a hint of unpredictability.

The quartet is joined on stage by McChrystal to perform a selection from Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs. First released in 1984, the songs display Corea’s talent for chamber writing, initially arranged for saxophone and piano.

In this performance, prepared for string quartet and sax by McChrystal and composer Ian Stewart, the songs take on a new lease of life. Much of the harmonic material becomes more vivid and exciting. McChyrstal’s performance retains the character of the original, and is complimented by a swinging interpretation from the quartet.

The next two works, although unrelated to one another, are performed as a single movement. Debussy’s 'Syrinx', originally written for solo flute, is performed on alto sax, leading into Maurice Ravel’s 'Piece en forme de Habanera'.

Formerly from the French Basque region, Ravel’s interest in Spanish music is evident from the opening: the final note of 'Syrinx' is taken over by a pizzicato rhythm on the viola with influences of the habanera, a Cuban dance from around the 19th century characterised by a dotted rhythm. 

As McChrystal explains, the overlapping shows the artistic link between the two great impressionist composers. 'Piece en forme de Habanera' is another arrangement from the original, scored for voice as a commission for one of the vocal tutors at the Paris Conservatoire. The sax’s tone provides a beautiful substitute for the vocal line and adds a laid back feel to the slow dance.

In the final performance of the first half, the quartet choose Kevin Volans' 'Hunter Gathering', written in 1987 when he was Queen’s University composer-in-residence. The composer claims that he had 'grown tired of the "composition etude"- the one-idea piece'.

The work, then, aims to take the listener through different places, and has influences from beyond the world of classical music. Although written in three sections, the composer always intended the work to take the listener on an adventure, and instructs us to hear the piece as one complete movement. 

Volan’s skill in writing for strings are displayed to great effect in 'Stripweave' and the enthralling 'Cello Concerto'. The quartet’s performance is technically superb, negotiating the rhythmic jostling to bring out the complexities of the subtle orchestration.

The second half of the concert is a much more light-hearted affair. The audience hears pieces about Christmas Eve and a man returning home from a pilgrimage. One work comes with a warning that it should not be performed by musicians who take serious music too seriously, another is to help us 'avoid erotic thoughts'. The final two pieces of the evening come from Michael Nyman’s songs from The Diary of Anne Frank.

Full of jazz harmonies and rhythms, Micheál Ó Súilleabháin’s 'Christmas Eve' is a great show piece for the quartet, and they clearly have fun performing it. This is followed by a new work by Northern Irish composer Greg Caffrey.

'Lapse' was written from the dictionary definition of the title: 'To drop in standard or fail to maintain a norm.' Taking this as a staring point, Caffrey’s work takes us through Irish jigs, tangos and even some 'butchered Bach and Chopin'. The piece works well, as well as providing an interesting and thoroughly entertaining listen.

Ciaran Farrel’s 'Homeward Bound', taken from The Pilgrim’s Return, is an energetic piece driven largely by the rhythms of the opening violins and viola. Heard then together with the solo sax, Farrel's piece - next to Ó Súilleabháin’s - proves to be one of the night's most accessible.

In the final works of the evening the audience finds another new commission, this time from Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. 'Stamp (to avoid erotic thoughts)' is a work derived from Dennehy’s interest in the French Estampie - a movement originating in medieval times referring to dances that use recurring material.

This works perfectly when you consider the piece is also meant to mimic the energy of an Irish traditional session. As the composer says, the drive lies in  'the wonderful twists and turns of these related medieval dance forms'. The quartet's performance measures up to the energetic demands, particularly with the foot-stomping at the end.

Michael Nyman’s 'If' and 'Why' are taken from the soundtrack to the 1995 Japanese animated feature film The Diary of Anne Frank. These pieces have since enjoyed a successful run outside of the film. 

In their original formats, the songs were set to texts by Roger Pulvers. 'If' is a melancholy song, with suspended chords and controlled dissonance, the resonating quality of the saxophone against this providing a fantastic sound. By contrast, 'Why' is much more upbeat, with Nyman’s signature classical minimalism coming through.

At a programme run-time of two hours you may be forgiven for thinking The Smith Quartet's performance a little long for a chamber music concert. Whether you care for Nyman’s music or not, the two pieces work and provide a great end to an evening of contemporary music which truly allowed the audience to experience how ‘living music' feels.