The classical music sandwich: delicious, nutritious and necessary

Classical Music: Concerts that intersperse classics with new pieces can be revelatory

"It was a Jennifer Walshe sandwich." The cellist Adrian Mantu was speaking to the audience, introducing the Irish composer's Minard/Nithsdale and describing a performance several years ago in Paris with his ConTempo Quartet. The Viennese masters Mozart and Haydn were the bread and Walshe the meat.

The players, he said, were delighted by the Paris audience’s response: they applauded Mozart and Haydn, and when it came to Walshe, half gave a standing ovation while the rest booed. Good for the ConTempo, good for Walshe. Good for demonstrative French concert-goers.

And good for classical sandwiches, of which there were plenty last week. They are such a good thing on many levels. By including new or contemporary pieces among what they play, performers stay fresh and vital, and they fulfil an artistic obligation. They are the agents of today’s art. They also avoid becoming music archive trolls. Yes, the pieces they take down from the shelves down there, dust off and bring out into the light are wonderful, timeless gems. But no less than fiction or architecture or painting – each likewise with its own classics – music, too, keeps moving on. And, unlike a funky new glass-and-concrete structure you can’t help but see every day as you pass by on the bus, new music can’t meet its audience unless someone performs it. No one can know how different a 21st-century string quartet sounds compared with one by Haydn – or how similar – until a quartet plays it.

Or ideally plays both. It's good to play them alongside each other à la mode sandwich. This way useful factors such as context, evolution and how high the bar is are helpfully made available to us in the audience all at once. Three small ensembles did this last week, intimately – each with eight musicians or fewer – and all appearing genuinely committed to their chosen sampling of new music.


Eight voices

The first of these was the eight-voice English choral group The Cardinall's Musick. Renaissance specialists since forming in 1989, the group has latterly added work by contemporary composers to the repertoire, so that their concerts now juxtapose pieces separated by four or five centuries. Last Tuesday they made their NCH debut under the direction of their founder and conductor, Andrew Carwood, who, notably in common with the week's other two small ensembles, gave interesting and useful spoken introductions. His aim is "to allow the music to be set in context as living, breathing pieces of art, in their own context and their own story".

It really worked. The interspersing of Renaissance and contemporary music was extremely effective. The enduring genius and beauty of centuries-old pieces by Byrd, Francisco Guerrero and Palestrina came into even sharper focus when contrasted with music by living composers – Nico Muhly, Cheryl Frances Hoad, Paul Crabtree and Judith Weir – whose innovations and sound worlds in turn benefited from appearing on the spectrum of choral evolution in the presence of committed listeners.

Of course it helps having a choir in which each singer – two each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass – has the voice and individuality of a soloist combined with the sensitivity and awareness of a chamber musician. It made the Renaissance music spring brilliantly to life, dispelling the notion of the dark, dusty archive, and gave the new pieces every chance to make their intended impact on the audience.

Most of the contemporary pieces set unusual, often intriguing texts rather than familiar ones or ones from familiar sources, in this way reminiscent of Irish composers such as Gerald Barry and Seán Doherty. In Great Numbers by the American Muhly sets translations of sayings by fifth-century desert hermits, the British composer Hoad sets a 1577 German treatise on "the Great Comet" in her From the Beginning of the World, and pieces by English composer Paul Crabtree include texts originating in the Shaker religious sect.

Still, they concluded with Palestrina, whom Carwood described as “the perfect composer”.

Talented children

On Wednesday a similar interspersing located music by Offaly-born Amanda Feery in the company of classics by Haydn, Schumann and Mendelssohn. This was at an entirely gratifying concert by the Amatis Piano Trio in the Adelaide Road Lutheran church. It was part of a national tour by Music Network, which in fact maintains an Irish "sandwich" policy that sees every tour include contemporary work by an Irish composer.

It was entirely gratifying because the trio played everything like vivacious, precociously talented children let loose in a fabulous playground where all the swings and slides are new and wonderful. Their energy – unbounded in spirit yet contained by economy and stylistic faithfulness – exuberantly blasted away the dust of the archive and gave Feery's Gone to Earth a kind of zinging punch that embodied her declared themes of pursuit and refuge. This was her response to a brave, far-seeing #MeToo foreshadow in the form of a novel by the same name – with the same allusion to fox-hunting – written by Mary Webb a full century ago in 1917. Feery does an engaging job of expressing her response via a cool, running energy like a youthful Moto perpetuo, prepared piano – Blutak applied to a couple of keys turning them into drums – and a cinematic feel.

And so finally to Jennifer Walshe's Minard/Nithsdale, which the ConTempo Quartet performed alongside Haydn's Op 76 No 1 and Brahms's Op 51 No 1. This was in the NCH's Kevin Barry Room on Sunday afternoon and part of the National String Quartet Foundation's autumn season. It made for an ideal sandwich. Walshe wanted her deliberate removal of certain musical information from her piece to resemble a photo of someone in which much of the surrounding context has been cut away. She puts paper between the strings and asks the players to click their tongues – continuously, for an impressive duration! – and to contort their sound into the strumming of ukuleles. It's mad, and engaging – and all the better for taking its place between giants.