Composer JUDITH RING reviews Ergodos Musicians concert I Call To You at the ICC10 Festival
Ich ruf zu Dir by JS Bach BWV 639, in the key of F minor, was written in 1713. It was originally an organ work from Das Orgelbüchlein (Chorale Preludes I). Ich ruf zu dir is amongst the most popular chorale preludes in that collection. Later on, Bach wrote an arrangement of the piece as a cantata for choir and orchestra in 1725. The text comes from the first verse of Johann Agricola's hymn.Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ, Ich bitt, erhör mein Klagen, I pray, hear my lamentation, Verleih mir Gnad zu dieser Frist, bestow your grace on me at this time, Laß mich doch nicht verzagen; do not let me despair; Den rechten Glauben, Herr, ich mein, I think that I have the right faith, Lord, Den wollest du mir geben, which you wanted to give me, Dir zu leben, to live for you, Meinm Nächsten nütz zu sein, to be useful to my neighbour, Dein Wort zu halten eben. to keep your word properly.
A strong rendition of Garrett Sholdice’s transcription of Ich ruf zu Dir by pianist Michael McHale opened the concert. This is an intense piece of music that commands the listener’s complete aural and emotional engagement. Based firmly in the key of F minor it has a dark and sullen introduction with rich and powerful harmonic progressions that modulate into a major key leading to a hopeful and bright middle section. The steady underlying rhythmic pulse of this piece pulls us along on a journey of rich emotional intensity driven home by Sholdice’s use of deep, widely spaced arpeggiated chords crescendoing into the final stretch, resolving in a calm and gentle coda.
After our introduction to the piece of music that was to be the inspiration for interpretations and arrangements by composers Garrett Sholdice, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Simon O’Connor and Jonathan Nangle, the full ensemble was employed for Ich bitt, erhör mein Klagen by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly. A dark and foreboding, yet delicate opening chord on strings and piano leads to a more forlorn atmosphere of loss and emptiness before the musical language changes into a more frenzied vibe with minimal-type repetitive motifs on the instruments accompanying Michelle O’Rourke’s vocal during the middle section. This pulls back substantially to give way to a slower and more sustained end section, a variation on the opening, haunting, subtle and refined.
The programme was beautifully structured. It began and ended with solo piano pieces. Every second piece was a rearrangement/interpretation of the piano piece for ensemble and these were interspersed with three vocal and ensemble pieces inspired by the original.
Jonathan Nangle’s piece opened with a rearrangement of the original theme for the ensemble (without voice) in a stripped-down chordal fashion which develops and expands into new territories with the addition of inharmonic notes. Again a sense of space, loss, loneliness and emptiness prevails. This led into Garrett Sholdice’s Verleih mir Gnad zu dieser Frist which deconstructs the piano part, picking out one note at time from the harmonic texture, and adding an eerie melodic vocal part floating on top. The strings and clarinet swell in with chords, with the strings playing high glistening harmonics at times. Again an overriding sense of darkness and longing encompasses this piece, which was followed by Simon O’Connor’s take on Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, also a rearrangement of the original piece for voiceless ensemble. Here he pulls apart the texture without ever really losing the original intention. The rhythmic pulse is gone and the harmonic language is coloured in different ways to give the piece a new flavour and distinguish it from the original. The thread is always there though and there are moments of hope shining through.
Verleih, dass ich aus Herzensgrund by Schlepper-Connolly brings the angelic voice of Michelle O’Rourke back to the ensemble and overall presents a painfully beautiful song enveloped by delicate strings and woodwind that lightens up the mood. Although it is short, it offers us something to hold onto, a richness, a delicate fragility that leaves one with an intense sense of calm and prepares us for the closing piece, a piano deconstruction of Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ by Garrett Sholdice. Pushed up into the higher register, this stripped-down version of the piece puts a whole new twist on the original. Michael McHale’s interpretation of the score is one of complete nuance, fragility and attention to detail. The power the piece, and his playing, had over the audience was of a strength and control that I have rarely heard before. For me it was the defining moment of the concert. It wrapped up everything that had gone before in a neat and tidy bow leaving the audience completely spent. There was a silence in the air around those sustained notes that can only be experienced to be appreciated. Not a shuffle, nor a cough, sniff, or creak of a seat could be heard during this dark and all consuming yet incredibly delicate and simple reworking of this piece. As the last note died out that floating silence held for an extraordinarily long time as the audience let the music sink in and didn’t dare move. McHale’s sensitive interpretation of the score left all our minds in a faraway place. The ghost of Bach seeping through the air around us… I imagine he would have been more than flattered.
The only real issue I had with this particular performance of I Call to You was the setting. The venue did not suit the overall atmosphere that Ergodos like to create at their concerts. Requesting that the audience refrain from applauding between pieces, and that they only leave the auditorium in an emergency, is one of their performance pre-requisites and this helps set a very particular mood and audience response. Through this technique the audience listens more attentively and in general are more focused on the music. The Space Upstairs is quite a dead space so the sound engineers had to recreate the reverberant effect needed to give the music the space and atmosphere that it requires to be most effective. Due to the amplification of the instruments the balance was also a little off-putting at times with the piano being too high in the mix from where I was sitting. Unfortunately I found this unnatural treatment of the sound a little off-putting. The room itself did not fit the music. This music needs to be performed in a naturally reverberant space and preferably in aesthetically pleasing surroundings of some sort. But can we always be so choosy about where we perform? Perhaps not. Despite this fact the concert blew me away and as always the Ergodos Musicians created a magical world for us to enter, however briefly.
Judith Ring is a Dublin-based composer and curator of the Listen at Lilliput concert series. See www.judithring.com
Ergodos is a music production company run by composers Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schleper-Connolly. See www.ergodos.ie
Ergodos Musicians: Michelle O’Rourke – voice, Jonathan Sage – clarinet, Anita Vedres – violin, Bill Butt – cello and Michael McHale – piano.
Composers: Garrett Sholdice, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Simon O’Connor, Jonathan Nangle and Johann Sebastian Bach.
Main photo (at top): Ergodos Musicians performing at ICC10, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, November 2014. Photo by Daryl Feehely