In concert – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Blossoming In Birmingham

Oliver Janes (clarinet), Philip Brett, Stefano Mengoli (violins), David BaMaung (viola), Arthur Boutillier (cello), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Otis Lineham, Kazuki Yamada (conductors)

Illean Januaries (2017)
Fujikura Perpetual Spring (2017)
Ligeti String Quartet no.2 (1968)
Hosokawa Blossoming (2007)
Fujikura Secret Forest (2008)

BCMG NEXT [George Blakesley (clarinet), Anna Vaughan (violin), Alma Orr-Ewing (viola), Finley Spathaky (cello), Rob Hao (piano)

Fujikura Scion Stems (2010)
Illean Février (2019)
Fujikura Halcyon (2011)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Saturday 29 April 2023 (7pm and 9pm)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Spring may have arrived tardily this year, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was certainly in full bloom with this judiciously balanced and absorbing programme that featured one post-war classic and two pieces by one of the leading composers from the present time.

First, though, the welcome opportunity to hear a work by Lisa Illean, whose understated and fastidiously realized music conceals more than is evident on initial hearing. Such is true of Januaries, inspired by memories of holidays in Queensland together with descriptions of the Australian landscape. Its innate subtlety finding a direct parallel in this composer’s drawing of often ethereal yet always evocative timbres and textures from her 12-strong ensemble; and throughout which BCMG responded with due commitment to the direction of Otis Lineham.

The first of two pieces this evening by Dai Fujikura, Perpetual Spring drew inspiration from the Japanese Garden in Portland (US), notably the idea of growth as a process both ongoing and inexorable. Heard from this vantage, the clarinet represented a conceptual and expressive focal point; around which the string quartet weaved its dense if never claustrophobic texture with audible dexterity. Here, too, the music implied considerably more than was ever stated – no doubt in accord with the ‘‘power of ‘quiet’ nature’’ its composer took as his starting-point.

Although it now tends to be overshadowed by its predecessor, Ligeti’s Second String Quartet remains one of his most significant works – its five movements a compendium of his musical practice during the late 1960s, but with a formal and expressive focus that amply sustains the 20-minute whole. It was a measure of this account that a cumulative impetus carried through not merely to the explosive fourth movement, but also a finale whose textural mirage took in allusions to what went before: the music not so much ceasing as dispersing beyond earshot.

The string quartet was also Toshio Hosokawa’s chosen medium for Blossoming. Taking the image (and most probably its mythical association) of a lotus as its starting-point, the piece opened out in music typical of this composer for its unforced elegance and felicitous aura.

Considerably more engrossing an all-round experience, Fujikura’s Secret Forest is among the most impressive of his ensemble works and not least for its visceral conception. Placed centre-stage, the string nonet was balanced with groups of woodwind and brass either side, and above the auditorium. It was the ensuing interplay between the spatially arrayed sound-sources, strings intense in their eloquence and winds hieratic in their intangibility, that the conductor shaped over its course – not forgetting the solo bassoon, seated in the auditorium, who became a human figure plotting a course through this sonic landscape. The piece was directed with conviction by Kazuki Yamada and promises much for the Fujikura commission Wavering World, which he will premiere with the CBSO in Symphony Hall on January 17th.

A pity not more punters remained for the post-concert performance by musicians of BCMG NEXT, which featured two more works by Fujikura. Scion Stems took string trio as the basis for a wide-ranging discussion of textures made even more immediate by its brevity, whereas Halcyon pursued a more circumspect yet never disengaged interplay between clarinet and string trio. In between, Février found Illean’s writing at its most sensuous in its sequence of exchanges between clarinet, cello and piano to which these players likewise did full justice. The current NEXT line-up performs its final concert on June 11th, while BCMG itself returns to Birmingham Town Hall on May 12th for its TREE Concert featuring a new commission by Christian Mason alongside one of the most impressive compositions by Helmut Lachenmann

For more on future BCMG events, click on the link to visit their website. For more information on the composers featured, click on the names to read about Dai Fujikura, Lisa Illean and Toshio Hosokawa, while you can read about the conductors by clicking on Kazuki Yamada and Otis Lineham

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