Hammerhead Consort

A Vancouver New Music production. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday, March 1. No remaining performances

Pans are easy; raves are, too. What's hard is coming up with something substantive to say about competent performances of unmemorable material.

That's the dilemma in reviewing last Thursday's appearance by the Hammerhead Consort. It's impossible to knock this Vancouver/Edmonton quartet's musicianship, and there was nothing offensive about the pieces it chose to perform. So the temptation is to focus instead on aspects of the concert that are extraneous to the music itself—like the way the four players placed themselves in the cavernous black box that is the Scotiabank Dance Centre.

The Hammerhead band is made up of pianists Corey Hamm and Haley Simons, plus percussionists Trevor Brandenburg and Darren Salyn. Brandenburg and Salyn primarily work with mallet instruments—marimbas and xylophones and the like—and so to string everybody across the front of the stage would look cluttered and pose communication difficulties between band members. But to form the instruments up into a square, with the pianists' backs to the audience, doesn't work either, at least from the listeners' perspective. Although it's interesting to be able to view the scores, not being able to see the performers' faces creates an artificial distance from the music.

A bigger problem, however, was the choice of repertoire for Thursday's concert: en masse, these four generally well made pieces suffered from a certain similarity in tone, pacing, and intent. In fact, let's face it, they were all comparatively amorphous exercises in compositional gamesmanship: fascinating to musicians and academics, perhaps, but generally arid in terms of their emotional content, and often overly long.

Frederic Rzewski's 20-minute Bring Them Home! was the worst offender—which is surprising, given this American composer's impressive track record. It may just be that we've heard Rzewski take this tack—the obsessive demolition and reworking of a simple folk theme—before, in more successful pieces. Or it may be that the Hammerhead musicians opted not to emphasize the sense of mounting dread that this otherwise abstract antiwar statement could generate, were it played for drama rather than precision.

Drama was similarly missing in works by Howard Bashaw, Franco Donatoni, and Keith Hamel, although interesting, often bell-like sonorities abounded. Cool sounds alone are not enough to carry a lengthy concert, though, and here a little range—or a little grit—would have been most welcome.