Alex Groves and cellist Kate Ellis open SOLO at St Ethelburga’s in London

Composer and producer Alex Groves’s Arts Council-funded SOLO concert series returned last night with a solo concert given by Irish cellist Kate Ellis.

On the programme, theatrical soundscapes, imagination-triggering scores, and tantalising textures, some accompanied by pre-recorded tracks, others captured live. The ninety-minute recital included works by Linda Buckley, Judith Ring & Donnacha Dennehy, as well as a SOLO commission from Laura Cannell and the world première of Trace II by Alex Groves.

Alex Groves and Kate Ellis

SOLO is a concert format developed by Groves, spotlighting leading contemporary classical musicians with distinctive genre-defying music. Kate Ellis’ concert was the ninth in the series. Percussionist Joby Burgess featured in a previous SOLO outing back in 2019 when the event came to Peckham CLF Cafe.

What makes Groves productions work is their apparent simplicity. St Ethelburga’s is a narrow former church now event space seemingly squeezed in between giant office builds on Bishopsgate near to Liverpool Street. The tall squashed interior has an intimate vibe.

Theatrical lighting created a simple studio feel, dramatically lighting up corners and creating darkness in others. Inside this intimate space, the 100-strong audience – buzzcuts, turn-ups, and baggy trousers – gave this event an additional sense of urgency, all eyes focussed on the lone cellist in front of us, bows, microphones and other gizmos all lined up beside her on a black-clad music stand. As the event began a hush descended amongst the audience leaving, pleasingly, the hubbub of post-pandemic London thundering past in the background.

Selecting the right venue and kitting it out right is something I think we can say confidently Alex Groves does well. The atmosphere created sets the tone, heightens focus, and therefore supports the musician in the live performance.

What was heard was a distinct range of creative approaches to generating sound by just one instrument. Balm for a frazzled mind looking for experiments and whimsy to recharge and restore. At the start, Alex Groves Trace II – whispering string textures that put the unmistakable tantalising sound of horsehair on metal string front and centre. Groves piece established mood, shifting us into an attentive mindset.

The SOLO commission from Laura Cannell provided something more personal, beguiling in its use of a constantly repeating simple melodic idea – a kind of musical sigh or moan – that quickly embedded itself in the mind. Lilting Irish folksong was cleverly embedded making it barely perceptible in Donnacha Dennehy’s piece. Here there was a sense we had to ‘lean in’ to avoid losing it altogether.

The success of such a well-curated event as this was that the concluding Cello Counterpoint by Steve Reich sounded dated in comparison to the electricity of what had gone before.

Music curation and event production combined is key to developing networks and building audiences. Do it well, as Groves consistently does, and the audience can feel as though they’ve been thought about in the creative process as much as the performer on stage.

That this approach is discernible in two separate events I’ve attended suggests one important question: where are such creative talents of the kind Alex Groves clearly has needed most in the wider classical music industry?

Discover more about SOLO.

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