Last year The Balanescu Quartet celebrated their thirtieth year together, and, simultaneously, the twenty fifth anniversary of their breakthrough album release, Possessed – a release which featured some radical reworkings of the electronic music of the German band, Kraftwerk, and which brought the name of the quartet to worldwide notice.
As part of the 2018 Adelaide Festival, Alexander Balanescu and his quartet graced the Town Hall stage to perform a retrospective of their work, highlighting the main creative strands that they have followed and explored over the last three decades.
The performance began with a suite of pieces taken from their 1994 album Luminitza, a work that set out to explore Balanescu’s emotional reaction upon returning to his homeland of Romania after twenty years of exile.
His family had left their home behind in 1969, during the reign of Nicolae Ceaucescu, and had not been able to return until after the momentous political changes that rippled through Eastern Europe in 1989 had occurred.
The selection from this album for this performance, all clearly inspired by the traditional music of Balanescu’s forebears but laced with contemporary repetitions and rhythms serving to reflect the depth of his reaction to the broad changes he encountered upon his return home, provided a sombre and reflective listening experience.
The first of these pieces, which included spoken dialogue filtered through disorienting fuzzy static, encouraged a critical a rumination on the commercialisation and corporatisation that had occurred during the period of his separation from Romania as it had modernised and the media’s role in bringing about these changes.
The key point here was to expose the fallacy that ‘change’ necessarily equates with ‘new and good’ and for us to be critical of the political imperative that insists upon people believing this lie.
Later, as Balanescu intoned a long chronological list of the political upheavals that had occurred throughout Europe in the fifty years between the mid fifties and the early years of this century, the sheer scope of the upheaval and transformation that had occurred during just one lifetime was powerfully brought home to the audience, particularly in the effective usage of the quiet, almost indiscernible voices of the vanished victims of this era playing on tapes in the background.
The second set of works, the Maria T Suite, was a selection of pieces from the 2005 album, Maria T, and the performance of these changed the mood considerably.
This recording reworked the songs of Romanian singing star, Maria Tanase, as its central focus. This singer’s work had dominated the turntables of Balanescu’s in the early sixties, and had made a lasting impression on the young composer.
Whilst still heavily melancholic in mood, and lamenting the loss of a more innocent age, this section of the performance also conveyed Balanescu’s great affection for the past.
Bookending this pastoral bracket with the use of tapes of Tanase’s vocals taken from those early recordings, we were transported to the mountains to herd the cows, and encouraged to attune ourselves to the rustic rhythms that originally underpinned traditional Romanian culture, philosophy and their artistic approaches.
The lighter tone of these early pieces, however, were eventually offset by the intrusion of European unrest, encapsulated in the sad lament, The Young Conscript & The Moon, where the music made us reflect upon that point of inevitable friction between our irrepressible desire for constancy and the inescapable fact of the mutability of the world.
Finally, as an affirming nod to the quartet’s past and in recognition of their ongoing exploration of that point in time where the past meets the future, the audience were treated to a selection of four Kraftwerk classics, dispelling the idea that this quartet only mined the sadness of the past for their inspiration.
The Robots, Computer Love, The Model – and as an encore, Pocket Calculator, complete with a gentle Balanescu jig – were all performed with great respect and not just a small dose of humour, hypnotising the crowd with their mechanical repetitions and sweetly melodic counter melodies.
This current line-up of the quartet – Balanescu and James Shenton on violins, Katie Wilkinson on viola and Nick Holland – all appeared to relax and enjoy this less emotionally intense section of the night, especially Wilkinson who also allowed herself to dance unselfconsciously to the music.
Balanescu seemed to be very emotional at the end of the performance and he spoke with sincere gratitude of the warm response he has always received from Australian audiences.
The reception the quartet received at the end of this programme confirmed that the depth of this admiration is reciprocated from the other side of the apron stage as well.
The Balanescu Quartet Retrospective was performed at the Adelaide Town Hall as part of the 2018 Adelaide Festival on Tuesday 13 March 2018.
Adelaide Festival tickets are available here: Adelaide Festival Tickets