York Theatre, January 20
On a vast stage a lone soul sits at a grand piano, his back to most of us. This detachment between audience and player could have been a metaphor for the times, but the moment the music began, that detachment dissolved, and this was like being invited into Stu Hunter’s home; being invited into his private process of making music.
Few solo instruments are simultaneously as complete and as intimate as the piano. The music can be harmonically dense or expansive, or it can shrink to notes as fragile as fine crystal. Hunter’s compositions for The Beautiful Things, the solo album launched at this concert, cover that gamut and more. The thread, as the title suggests, is a celebration of beauty: an antidote to the relentlessness of fires, floods, COVID and Trump.
After composing three suites for ensembles of between four and 10 players, The Beautiful Things was more like undressing before a new lover: there was nowhere to hide. Nor did Hunter need to, as this suite allowed us insight into his instincts as an improviser on his own material – often using simple left-hand ostinatos to underpin right-hand lyrical flights. Very occasionally a composition’s seams showed, although Hunter has deepened his rendering of them since the recording, and the improvising was always supple and lucid, and further illuminated the pieces.
Ash was a highlight, the dialogue between groove and lilting melody conjuring something of the improbable balance, splendour and perfection of a sunflower. Ivy (Part 1) had a seductive naivety reminiscent of Erik Satie’s work, and The Tree that Sounds Like a Thousand Birds had a miraculous phase where Hunter generated dramatic shafts of sound, akin to sonic stalagmites.
Elaborate lighting would usually irritate in such a context, but here, designed by Mark Hammer and operated by Brad Hammer, it had exceptional empathy for each piece’s aesthetics. At one point claret-coloured pinstripe beams created an effect as though Hunter were playing in a cave, somehow amplifying the nakedness of the performance.