Hubbub/The Queen Mab Trio

Goethe Institut • Toronto

Consolidation and fragmentation were on show at Toronto’s Goethe Institute on Tuesday night as the fifth edition of the VTO Festival concluded on a musical high note – or more properly several of them

Coupled for the performance was Hubbub – alto saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet, tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, pianist Frédéric Blondy, guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage and percussionist Edward Perraud – a quintet from France on its first North American tour; and The Queen Mab Trio, made up pf Toronto pianist Marilyn Lerner, Montreal reedist with Lori Freedman and violist Ig Henneman from the Netherlands.

Playing second, after a break, the Hubbub set was enthralling, as the five consolidated different tones and textures in such a way that the quintet became one 10- handed organism that breathed as one. Dense, quivering vibrations characterized much of the work. Furthermore, except for a brief section at the end when the saxes combined for a stentorian, dissonant expiration, Guionnet and Denzler restricted themselves to cross blowing and flutter tonguing, with the former often pulsating a single tone and the later whistling across his reed as if he was playing a flute.

That left the focus on the guitarist and more spectacularly on the pianist and drummer. Another minimalist proponent, Mariage works the peripheral real estate on his axe, only coming into contact with the centre strings for zither-like plucks, finger taps, e-bow rubs or resonating and quivering pulses produced with other objects besides his guitar pick.

Blondy accumulated a jumble of foreign objects as well – empty soft drink cans, drum sticks, felt tip mallets, toothpick-thin sticks and rubber balls – and spent the bulk of his time laying siege to the piano’s innards. At times it seems as if he was engrossed in a game of table hockey or bocce ball, so concentrated was his attention on the divisions between the key frame and speaking length. Often he swabbed and scraped the strings, other times he ricocheted sounds from them.

Not to be outdone, Perraud spread his collection of percussive adds-ons across the tops and sides of his standard kit. He struck small bowls and miniature unattached cymbals on his drum heads and rasped on his ride and cup cymbals with what seemed to be a mini band saw. Sometimes he would smack than quiver a large cymbal in the air fro added resonance; often he would drag a drum stick across his snare; and once he let loose with a colossal bass drum whap as wake-up punctuation.

Working up to a climax of undifferentiated, near electronic textures, the bubbling reed tones, piano chording, sawing guitar strings and percussion punctuation harmonized into an all-encompassing buzz that then dissipated to silence.

Working through a series of eight, shorter pieces inspired by the work of 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz, Queen Mab’s opening performance was more fragmented, never quite reaching the level of time suspension created by Hubbub. Outputting deliberately jagged and discordant phrasing, the three supplely shaped extensive classical training to produce exactly the extended techniques needed for individual effects. Unlike Blondy, Lerner was rarely inside the piano, except for the odd pluck, although she probably played standing more often than sitting. Her strategy involved producing cross-handed romantic-style arpeggios when needed, pseudo nursery rhyme exercises at other times, pounding chordal clusters for emphasis or chilly single notes to add space.

As well as extended jettés and designated spiccato timbres, which sometimes seemed to be deliberately mocking the idea of “classical” fiddle soloist, Henneman often put aside her bow. Flat picking her viola strings as if it was playing banjo, she was occasionally joined in double counterpoint by Lerner’s frailing piano strings. Gesticulating, twisting and putting plenty of body English into her movements as she played, Freedman was most noticeable, whether playing clarinet or bass clarinet.

Favoring unattached notes, she pushed squat and foghorn-pitched sounds from her bass clarinet, flutter tongued or, at times, deliberately screeched for effect. On clarinet, her pitched patterns giggled if needed, while elsewhere she used key percussion to expand a composition’s bottom. Moving with herky-jerky, marionette-like motions, at points she muted the bell against her leg to create a pressurized sound that would extend tongue slaps.

Demonstrating two versions of modern chamber-like music, Queen Mab’s formalism and Hubbub’s transcendentalism etched a truly memorable experience for the audience members canny enough to spend the evening with them.

— Ken Waxman