Review: CONVOY HFX

October 30th, 2006

Soundscape invokes tension, maelstrom of battle
By STEPHEN PEDERSEN Entertainment Reporter

It was a dark and stormy night. Huge seas rolled under your feet, lightning slashed across the clouds, the wind raged, tearing the skin off each gargantuan wave as it heaved itself up to the skies, and the air was filled with the awesome noise of it — gulls, sonar pings, scratching sounds from an electronic violin, the echolalia of a woman’s voice approaching hysteria, racing snare drums and toms, a double-bass massively stuttering the theme from Jaws . . .

Wait a minute. We weren’t aboard the HMCS Sackville in the middle of the North Atlantic, but safe and dry in Dartmouth’s Alderney Landing Theatre. And Denyse Karn’s video projections backing the set for Eastern Front Theatre’s current production of Corvette Crossing accounted for the oceanic tumult.

But the uproar, and the dominating theme from Jaws were real enough. Upstream Ensemble — voice, violin, trumpet, bass clarinet, tenor sax, double bass, piano, drums and electronics — were performing Paul Cram’s CONVOY HFX.

The players were improvising over a soundscape prepared by Cram, who played sax and clarinet, conducted the forces arrayed in a line along the lip of the stage and on both sides of the raked set, urging them to keep up the manic tempo.

If it was an attempt to put each of us inside the maelstrom of battle and ocean storm who can say if what we felt was anything like the real thing? It certainly released a torrent of energy, but I couldn’t help feeling that the real excitement and involvement was down there on the stage acting and reacting, co-operating in the recreation of chaos, rather than passively sitting in our seats, paralytically taking it in.

Yet the textures were rich and varied with a thousand opportunities to savour details, had it given us time to do so.

CONVOY HFX was split into two parts, interrupted by a medley of war-pops performed by The Shop Girls (Lucille Niven, Lena Horn, Lynda Rosborough) as Shore Leave — String of Pearls, Bill Bailey, Goody-Goody, I’ll Be Seeing You. The screen at the back showed Bedford Basin with a convoy forming in it, looking across it and through the Narrows with George’s Island a distant lump, and no bridges, since neither had yet been built.

The medley, reproduced with a fuzzy halo of reverberation, did not flatter the sweet singing of the trio. The segment ended with Horn singing Lili Marlene in a very slow tempo.

Then it was back to the second part of CONVOY HFX, the transition marked by what sounded like the Marlene Dietrich version of Lili Marlene (causing Horn to do a double take), and with the Shop Girls taking part in the resumed mayhem, as the screen filled with gigantic bursts of exploded sea-water from depth-charges. Sentimental Journey helped to end the work.

The Shop Girls continued with The Ripple Effect and more photo montage and high energy, with Jamie Gatti running bass lines.

A word about the sound reproduction. Basically loud. Unremittingly unsubtle. Intentional it may have been, but I wanted to hear the harmonies of the vocal trio more crisply focused. And, no slight on Gatti’s fine playing, but the bass was much too loud all evening.

The evening began with Jeff Reilly’s take on Edward Lear’s The Hills of the Chankly Bore, home to the Jumblies. It was an entertaining aperitif, a modern score with radiant textures and well-modulated energy, ending, as befits those who "go to sea in a sieve", not with a bang, but a whimper.

The final work on the program, Cram’s B-Flat Restaurant, ended the concert with a different kind of continuous uproar, seasoned with a little heavy-handed whimsy. Underlying the musical chaos, as often is the case in Cram’s music of late, was a straightforward, rhythmic foundation delivered by bass, piano and drums regulating the flow by driving all before it like a bulldozer.

The prolonged coda made certain of the ending after the fashion of the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

spedersen@herald.ca)Sax Face Off