"The Great God Pan is dead" kept echoing in my head while the Equinox Ensemble performed Ruben Zahra's Pan the Goat-God at St James Cavalier. Pan is supposed to be the only one of the immortals to have died. While the others linger on in the collective memories of those of us who are lovers of antiquity and the classics, the priapic erotic Pan was sacrificed because the austerities of Christianity and Pan's exuberant licentiousness simply could not coexist. Milton's poem celebrating Christianity ‘On the morning of Christ's Nativity' has indelibly confirmed the death of Pan in line 89. Listening to the Zahra piece makes it seem as though some frenzied ritual, some unburied neo-paganism has been revived in this four movement paean to this god who wickedly epitomised all that was illegal, immoral and fattening.
The Equinox Ensemble specialises in the performance of 20th century and contemporary music. It is made up of Tricia Dawn Williams, piano, Tatjana Chircop, violin and Lino Pirotta, clarinet. The trio plays with great panache and enjoy a great rapport. They are expressive and pay great attention to detail while making it obvious that besides having studied each piece intensely they have also thoroughly enjoyed the process. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. And the pudding was delicious.
The programme consisted of four contrasting works by Maltese contemporary composers. Albert Pace's Trio was extremely cerebral but I personally would have preferred a more sensual experience. Karl Fiorini's Trio Lamina was distinguished by a most beautiful and haunting Lento section that could have been subtitled ‘hommage a Bartok' while Christopher Muscat's Fakriet could similarly have been subtitled ‘hommage a Camilleri'.
Then of course there was the Zahra Pan music which brought the evening to a mesmerising finale with sexily voluptuous rhythms of a frenzied toccata with an unbelievably delicate and tender central passage. As I told Ruben afterwards, I feel that he has created our own Maltese Rite of Spring.
Reviewing contemporary music is a great challenge. Can anyone ever imagine what it was like to have been present at the first performance of Beethoven's Grosse Fugue or Strauss's Four Last Songs? A reviewer cannot relax for an instant. Nor would he wish to. Besides assessing the effectiveness of delivery one has to translate music into words which is a daunting job even if one is reviewing the most popular pieces let alone something which has never been played before.
In my experience it is something that I enjoy immensely. It's like having a mental adrenalin rush. As in all music it either hits you or it doesn't. I assess the quality of a piece by asking myself whether I would wish to listen to it again. Unless it can seduce me with its melodic lines, rhythms and colours I would not willingly do so however it is the emotion that a new piece of music evokes that is the overriding factor
. I was moved by both the Fiorini and Zahra pieces and would wish to listen to them again soon..
The Pace Trio was too uncompromisingly abstract and fragmented for my taste. I felt it simply did not gel. As soon as I felt that some melody was breaking through the thorny structure it was given short shrift. I feel uncomfortable with music that is all brain and no heart; music that is possibly too clever by half for me.
The Fiorini Lamina Trio on the other hand was perfectly lyrical and memorably rhythmic. I will not forget those violin tremolos played so beautifully by Tatjana Chircop and the dramatic pianistic punctuation splendidly declaimed by Tricia Dawn Williams, however it was, and I felt, the expressiveness of the clarinet played by Lino Pirotta that stole the show in this lovely piece.
Christopher Muscat's Fakriet was written to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Malta's Independence and is dedicated to the late Charles Camilleri. Using the same folk tunes as those used by Camilleri in his Malta Suite, Muscat created a pretty medley of tunes that while not being at all profound started out where Camilleri left off. There was a tendency to overdo the saccharine when playing out the cantilena which almost killed it however the wry episodes that kept the piece together just managed to redeem it.
It was the Zahra that rose head and shoulders above the rest in as far as exciting originality is concerned. Listening to it was like the unforgettable experience I had in Rome a couple of years back when visiting the Picasso Exhibition at the Vittoriano where the entire Vollard Suite with its fauns and satyrs, all devotees of the great god Pan, cavorted in a rivetingly lyrical set of 100 etchings by the artistic wizard of the 20th century. Zahra's complex composition with its ostinatos and grand climaxes, its rambling explorative largos that appear to be searching feverishly to resolve, the gusts of melodic wind created by the clarinet and the violin and those brilliant chordal piano passages made the evening one I will remember with pleasure for a long time.