In concert – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Music in Dialogue

Adámek Karakuri (2011)
De Saram Music for Kandyan Drum, String Sextet and Percussion (2022) (BCMG Sound Investment commission: World premiere)
Adámek Whence Comes the Voice? (2022) (BCMG Sound Investment commission: World premiere)
Kamrul The Story of Maya (2021-2)

Shigeko Hata, Neel Kamrul (voices), Rohan de Saram (Kandyan drum), Suren de Saram (drums), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Ondřej Adámek

CBSO Centre, Birmingham, Sunday 4 September 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

An early start for the new season of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group saw a varied programme culturally and stylistically, most of it directed by Ondřej Adámek and featuring Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan musicians for what resulted in a thought-provoking dialogue.

The decade or more since he wrote Karakuri has seen Adámek emerge at the forefront of European new music, and with this piece an engaging statement of intent. It channels the mechanized Japanese puppetry of that name towards music-theatre in which the figurine is envisaged then gradually brought to life and fine-tuned; subsequently to wreak havoc on its own terms. Shigeto Hata conveyed this whole process with unnerving precision, while the intricately detailed instrumental component was ably rendered by the members of BCMG.

Although he remains best known as one of the most wide-ranging cellists of his generation, Rohan de Saram has long been an exponent of the Kandyan drum from his native Sri Lanka. His new commission is precisely what the title says – an abstract though evocative piece in which the drum is partnered by percussion and string sextet for a series of interactions that, while it promised more than it delivered, held the attention on its own terms. With de Saram providing the steady rhythmic undertow, Suren de Saram contributed an enticing overlay of percussion with the BCMG players adding a harmonic backdrop that changed incrementally according to the prevailing rhythmic intensity. There was likely a concept here that could be further developed and refined, but what was heard this afternoon did not lack for potential.

Following the interval – Adámek’s Whence Comes the Voice? brought European and Indian, composed and traditional music into deft juxtaposition. Taking its inspiration from Qawwali singing, and using a scale derived from the Raga Todi, the piece unfolded via tempos which rose progressively across its 20-minute course. Formally self-contained and even inscrutable, it took on a whole range of expressive nuance through its vocal contributions – Neel Kamrul an appealing presence through his eloquent and mellifluous cantilena; Shigeko Hata adding a rhythmic but no less lyrical element that, between them, made more of this fusion than might otherwise have been possible. A ‘dialogue’ that says much for those improvisation sessions held prior to the Covid pandemic, and from out of which Adámek derived the present work.

A degree of perspective was then afforded when Neel Kamrul took the stage for The Story of Maya, unfolding a perspective on the musical landscape of Bangladesh enhanced by wooden flutes and ankle percussion (with subtle piano and percussive contribution from Adámek and Julian Warburton), before accompanying himself on a Bangla banjo towards the culmination of his narrative. As an understated yet affecting conclusion to the afternoon’s music-making, this could not have been more appropriate: Kamrul holding the stage with due effortlessness. Special thanks, too, to those who provided the range of Bangladeshi samosas and deserts that were gratefully consumed during the interval and after the concert. Whether or not these had any bearing on the music that was heard, they were an added attraction to this event overall.

Click on the names for more information on the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, composers Ondřej Adámek, Shigeko Hata, Neel Kamrul, Rohan de Saram and Suren de Saram

In concert – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group & PRiSM: Iannis Xenakis Centenary – Maths and Music

CBSO Centre @ 3pm:

Xenakis Plektó (1993)
Pattar Philosophy should stop at midnight (2022) [World Premiere]
Tzortis Croque strideurs (2022) [World Premiere]
Xenakis Anaktoria (1969); Nomos Alpha (1966); Phlegra (1975)

Arne Deforce (cello), Musicians of BCMG: NEXT / Melvin Tay

CBSO Centre @ 5pm:

Xenakis Ittidra (1996)
Fernando Breathing Forest (2022) [Sound and Music commission: World Premiere]
Xenakis Akanthos (1977)
Howard Compass (2022) [BCMG Sound Investment commission: World Premiere]
Xenakis Jalons (1986)

Anna Dennis (soprano), Julian Warburton (percussion), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Gabriella Teychenné

The Exchange @ 7pm:

Luque It Is happening Again (2019-21) [UK Premiere]
Xenakis La Légende d’Eer (1978)

Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre, Sunday 29 May 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

There could been no better way for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group to round off its current season than with this extended tribute to Iannis Xenakis on his 100th birthday. Over three events, a representative selection of the Greek composer’s work was heard within the context of new commissions and realizations of graphic scores.

The latter featured in the Synesthesia concert, after an earlier session where this ‘free, internet-browser-based music application’ (continuing from the UPIC programme that Xenakis pioneered in the 1980s) was made available – two previous graphic scores forming the basis of those pieces heard this afternoon.  Philosophy should stop at midnight found Frédéric Pattar following quite literally the contours of the score, a deft humour pointed up though the verse by Richard Brautigan (perhaps a latter-day ‘consolation of philosophy’?), whereas Croquis strideurs found Nicolas Tzortis aligning his score with poetry by Arthur Rimbaud in what was a more capricious or ‘off the wall’ approach.

The three pieces by Xenakis (above) were well chosen to demonstrate the expressive range of his music. Plektó (Braids) is typical of the music from his last years with its teasingly subversive take on a mixed ensemble, while Anaktoria (a lover of Sappho) puts an ensemble as modelled on Schubert’s Octet through its paces in music by turns ingratiating and obstreperous. Most impressive was Phlegra (being (different) regions of modern and ancient Greece), written at the advent of that period when ‘arborescence’  principles brought a new evolutionary dynamism to the composer’s thinking evident in this assured reading by musicians of BCMG: NEXT under the attentive direction of Melvin Tay.

Cellist Arne Deforce earlier took the stage for a performance of Nomos Alpha, typical in its utilizing mathematical abstraction to create viscerally emotional music. Visuals by Marcus de Sautoy and Simon Russell, as derived from the symmetrical properties of a cube, were arresting but it was the musical realization which commanded attention.

Three more pieces by Xenakis were included in the late-afternoon concert. Among his last works, Ittidra (unusual for this composer with its being the reverse spelling of the dedicatee’s name) is a brooding and ultimately fatalistic reassessment of the string sextet, and Akanthos (a city in ancient Greece) extends its instrumental remit to include woodwind and brass as well as soprano whose vocalise adds an often ethereal but at other times keening timbre to the ensemble – vividly conveyed here by Anna Dennis. Again, it was the closing item which made the most lasting impression. Xenakis’s relations with the modernism as represented by Pierre Boulez might at times been strained, but there was evident accord by the time he wrote Jalons for the latter’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Here those ‘signposts’ or ‘landmarks implied by the title emerge as gestural peaks in music whose headlong motion generates irresistible excitement, and not least with BCMG sounding so responsive to the  guidance of Gabriella Teychenné.

Alternating with these works in either half were new commissions by very different composers. With its libretto by Zoe Palmer, Breathing Forest is described by its composer Samantha Fernando as ”A meditation on the inner struggles of a woman and her transformation through the Japanese art of … forest bathing”. What resulted was an exploration of its atmospheric text, realized with audible precision and elegance by Anna Dennis, whose musical substance – while not unappealing in itself – remained too inert to convey the emotional catharsis likely intended. More absorbing was a BCMG commission from Emily Howard, whose Compass takes those spatial and nautical connotations of its title as basis for music that unfolded as a cohesive dialogue between string septet with Julian Warburton‘s array of percussion. Few latter-day composers have shown Howard’s zeal for the interplay of music with mathematics, BCMG’s committed realization vindicating her latest piece musically as well as conceptually.

The final event, an acousmatic concert by Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), relocated from CBSO Centre to The Exchange – an impressive Grade Two-listed building on Centenary Square under the auspices of University of Birmingham. Its third-floor conference room certainly suited these two pieces – starting with It Is Happening Again by the Mexican-born, now Madrid-based composer Sergio Luque. Drawing on his development  of Xenakis’s stochastic synthesis process, this proved to be a short while evocative study in density of sonic waves whose inherent abstraction was far from being without a tangible atmosphere through its succession of sonic ideas.

Although hampered by microphone malfunction, Christopher Haworth‘s introduction to the next piece was full of relevant detail concerning the purpose and reception of electroacoustic music. Not least when the piece in question was La Légende d’Eer, most expansive and all-encompassing of those Xenakis realized and which caused no mean controversy when initially heard as a musical facet of Diatope at the inauguration of the Pompidou Centre, with its apparently high level of amplification. The present multi-channel version was more easily accommodated, if not at the expense of its dazzling variety – Xenakis evoking the Platonic legend of a soldier returning from the dead via a symmetrical form which takes in an array of instrumental and synthesized sounds as they build to a sustained peak of organized frenzy before the almost regretful evanescence. Had nothing else survived, Xenakis would still have been thought a key creative figure from the post-war era and its impact has not lessened with time or expectation.

It certainly set the seal on a finely conceived and impressively realized sequence of events that reaffirmed Xenakis as a composer whose legacy is undeniable and his influence enduring. The 2020s will bring a whole succession of notable centenaries (that of Ligeti being just a few months away) and BCMG has set the bar high for those to come.

Click on the names for more information on the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, composers Frédéric Pattar, Nicolas Tzortzis, Samantha Fernando and Emily Howard, and performers Sergio Luque, Anna Dennis, Arne Deforce, Julian Warburton, –
Melvin Tay, Gabriella Teychenné and Christopher Haworth.

In concert – Do we need a new compass? / Anna Dennis & BCMG NEXT @ CBSO Centre, Birmingham


Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

Anna Dennis (soprano), BCMG NEXT (Rebecca Speller (flute), Heather Ryall (clarinet), Claudia Dehnke (violin), Cameron Howe (viola) Carwyn Jones (cello), Joe Howson (piano) / Leo Geyer (conductor)

Querfurth cold pastoral (2021) [UK Premiere]
 Black Rain (2021) [UK Premiere]

Anna Dennis (soprano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Robert Looman (flute), Nicholas Cox (clarinet), Kate Suthers (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Goerge Barton (percussion), John Reid (piano) / Gabriella Teychenné

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Thursday 17 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has been involved in various cross-national projects over its 35 years, with Do we need a new compass? one of the most ambitious: three concerts in three countries by three ensembles, with BCMG joining Bologna’s FontanaMix Ensemble and Hannover’s Das Neue Ensemble in commissioning two composers to write for one of the other ensembles. This last of three concerts featured two UK premieres next to a piece whose influence, conceptually and musically, has been far-reaching in the 120 years of its existence.

Whether through its eliding between cabaret and art-song, or its scoring for mixed ensemble, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire still blazes a trail. This performance duly played to the virtues of these ‘three times seven poems’ – Anna Dennis teasing a deft elegance from ‘Moondrunk’ and forlorn yearning from ‘A Pallid Washerwoman’, her rapt intertwining with flute in ‘The Sick Moon’ a highlight. The second part was less consistent – the ominous menace of ‘Night’ a little tepid, then the graphic imagery of ‘Red Mass’ falling short of its climactic violence.

Not so the stark evocation of ‘The Crosses’ as set the tone for the gradual pacification of the third part – from the suffused melancholy of ‘Homesickness’, through the visceral irony of ‘The Moon Fleck’ (its canonic interplay a stern test of coordination as was amply fulfilled), to the distanced nostalgia of ‘O Ancient Scent’ with its numbed sense of re-arrival. Dennis was never less than persuasive in these settings, and Leo Geyer ensured that BCMG NEXT brought character as well as discipline to Schoenberg’s always resourceful instrumentation.

A tough challenge, moreover, for the new pieces which came after the interval. Interesting that that by Kaspar Querfurth should have sounded the more ‘Italian’ – the restrained, even austere ambience of cold pastoral bringing to mind the deadpan ambivalence found in the later music of Donatoni and Aldo Clementi, for all that the vestigial evolving of its motifs went some way to conjuring a musical evocation of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn – or at least those final two lines when the object being contemplated utters its indelible response.

His extensive involvement in electroacoustics was evident in Daniele Ghisi’s Black Rain, though the earlier stages in his setting of lyrics by Andrea Agostini were for the most part understated in their interaction between voice, ensemble and electronics; the latter coming   to the fore gradually while remorselessly so as to envelop the soundstage in a coruscating resonance – above which, Dennis’s voice emerged as an expressive focal point. ‘Immersive’ is a rather overused term these days, but the present piece more than justified this epithet.

It helped in these latter works that the BCMG musicians was so responsive to the direction of Gabriella Teychenné, whose activity with London-based Sinfonia Humanitas has rightly been attracting plaudits. She was wholly justified, too, in having begun the second half with the First Postlude (1981) by Valentin Silvestrov – the Ukrainian composer’s homage to his Russian forebear Shostakovich, whose ‘strength through calmness’ is a potent reminder of music’s ability to reach across boundaries to a degree exemplified by this evening’s concert.

Further information on BCMG events in the 2021/22 season can be found at their website. Click on the names to read more detail on composers Kaspar Querfurth and Daniele Ghisi, or for more on Anna Dennis, Leo Geyer and Gabriella Teychenné

In concert – Do we need a new compass? / BCMG NEXT @ Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, Symphony Hall, Birmingham


Meredith Four to the Floor (2005)
Heather Ryall, Emily Wilson, Beth Nicholl, George Blakesley (bass clarinets)

Mason Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow (2010)
Rebecca Speller (flute), Joe Howson (piano)

Howard Cloud Chamber (2006)
Emily Wilson (clarinet), Mikaella Livadiotis (piano)

Anderson Scherzo with Trains (1993)
Heather Ryall, George Blakesley (clarinets), Beth Nichol (basset horn), Emily Wilson (b-clarinet)

Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 17 March 2022 (1pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

BCMG NEXT may have had a major role in tonight’s concert at CBSO Centre, itself marking the culmination of a major project that has already featured events in Bologna and Hannover, but it was a worthwhile move to include more of these young musicians in a lunchtime recital.

Anna Meredith has written numerous chamber pieces, among which Four to the Floor has an immediate appeal – not least through the uniform line-up of its clarinet quartet in music whose methodical exploration of timbre almost inevitably results in the descent intimated by its title. It may have been a transcription of the final item from his song-cycle after Christina Rosetti, but Christian Mason’s Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow felt no less evocative in this incarnation for flute and piano – not least as rendered with such poise by Rebecca Speller and Joe Howson.

Emily Howard’s composing career has unfolded parallel to her scientific research, such that Cloud Chamber bridges any likely divide through its iridescent timbral interplay for clarinet and piano – realized here with precision and verve by Emily Wilson and Mikaella Livadiotis. The recital ended with Scherzo (with trains), one of Julian Anderson’s most engaging shorter works whose inspiration in Thoreau as well as rhythms of high-speed trains puts its diverse clarinet quartet through an unpredictable discourse here ensuring a characterful performance.

This diverse and enjoyable recital was also the second BCMG-related event to be held at the Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, adjacent to the Circle level at Symphony Hall – itself much improved as a setting with the overhead promotional screen turned off for the duration.

Further information on BCMG events in the 2021/22 season can be found at their website. Click on the names to read more detail on composers Julian Anderson, Emily Howard, or for more on Christian Mason and Anna Meredith

In concert – Black Mirrors / BCMG NEXT @ Royal Birmingham Conservatoire


Pattar La Nuit Remue (2002) (a), Acte (1999) (b), Miroir Noir III (2009) (c), Miroir Noir II (2009) (d)

BCMG:NEXT (a, b, c) (Rebecca Speller (flute, a), Emily Wilson (a), Heather Ryall (b) (clarinets), Raddon Stephenson (trombone, b), Maja Pluta (a), Olivia Jago (c) (violins), Cameron Howe (viola) (a, c); Rosie Spinks (cello) (a, c); Michaella Livadiotis (piano (a, b), (celesta) (c), Joe Howson (toy piano) (c) / Melvin Tay (a, c)

L’Instant Donné (d) (Mathieu Steffanus (clarinet), Saori Furukawa (violin), Elsa Balas (viola), Nicolas Carpentier (cello)

Recital Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham
Friday 25 Febuary 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The second half of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s current season got off to an intriguing start with this collaboration between BCMG:NEXT and the Paris-based L’Instant Donné. All four of the pieces were by Frédéric Pattar (b1969), the Dijon-born composer who studied in Lyon with Gilbert Amy and who has worked extensively with this latter ensemble – building an extensive output over the past three decades which is audibly in the lineage of French post-war modernism, not least through its emphasis on timbral and colouristic facets.

Such qualities were uppermost in La Nuit Remue, a homage to surrealist poet Henri Michaux whose traversal from Boulezian fastidiousness to Lachenmann-like ‘concrète instrumentale’ was accomplished elegantly if anonymously. Melvin Tay drew a committed response from NEXT, who made a similarly fine impression with Acte. Inspired by a late poem of typically studied fatalism from Arthur Rimbaud, the interplay of its three wind instruments made for stark tonal contrasts such as were variously abetted and mediated by dextrous piano writing.

The remaining works were the latter two instalments from the trilogy Miroirs Noirs, each of which offered a striking take on its chamber format. In Miroir Noir III, the stealthy dialogue between string trio was pointedly offset by interjections from celesta and toy piano in a stern test of coordination the NEXT players met head-on. Members of L’Instant Donné then took the stage for Miroir Noir II, a more extended piece which teased out the possibilities of the ‘clarinet quartet’ with a keen sense of momentum sustained through to its deadpan ending.

A fine performance, then, from a group whose appearance this evening (as at the lunchtime recital in Symphony Hall) was made possible through Diaphonique, a funding body whose support is the more necessary in these post-Brexit times. Hopefully more of Pattar’s music will make its way to the UK (his Second String Quartet is well worth hearing on YouTube), but this collaboration was a worthy means of introducing it to Birmingham listeners in skilful and sympathetic performances.

Further information on BCMG events can be found at their website. To read an interview with Frédéric Pattar click here, while his biography can be found here). For more on L’Instant Donné click here, and for Diaphonique here