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

In concert – Echoes/BCMG NEXT @ Centrala


Anderson Scherzo (with trains) (1993)
Pentatonic Étude (2008)
Duets for Storab (1983)
Soft (1989)
Brother (2012/15)

Musicians from BCMG NEXT

Centrala, Digbeth, Birmingham
Thursday 16 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may not be the most easily locatable arts venue of those within Birmingham’s inner suburbs, but Centrala – launched almost a decade ago as a base for the dissemination and promotion of Central and Easter European cultures – was an appealing space for this latest recital featuring NEXT musicians from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The performance area itself might have been compact to a fault, but there no feeling of excessive restriction in the course of what was a varied yet balanced programme of works stretching across almost four decades.

It began in invigorating fashion with a timely revival of Scherzo (with trains) whose premiere at Wigmore Hall was an early success for Julian Anderson – being one of his most engaging works for ensemble and a major contribution to its genre. Drawing inspiration from Thoreau as well as rhythms of high-speed trains, two clarinets (Heather Ryall and George Blakesley), basset horn (Beth Nichol) and bass clarinet (Emily Wilson) unfold an unpredictable discourse; one whose requirements of technique and coordination were met in this assured performance.

A pity that the scheduled account of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Spectra was lost through Covid-related issues, but a further hearing for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude was certainly no hardship. This testing paraphrase on a passage from Bartók’s unfinished Viola Concerto puts the soloist through its paces, restating the original in an understated apotheosis realized by Cameron Howe with evident sensitivity. Also reappearing from NEXT’s recent recital at Coventry Cathedral was Harrison Birtwistle’s Duets for Storab. Written when the composer lived on the Inner Hebridean island of Raasay, its inspiration lies in locations each having the name of a Viking prince whose shipwreck, pursuit and death are charted over six evocative pieces. Flautists Rebecca Speller and Leila Hooton were heard in (mainly) whimsical accord.

The music of Franco Donatoni enjoyed a brief vogue here in the decade before his death, but there have been few performances since – so making this revival of Soft the more welcome. Written for the late Harry Sparnaay, the bass clarinet’s doughtiest champion, this tensile and eventful piece feels typical of his late maturity in the way that seemingly detached, and even arbitrary gestures gradually build into a cohesive and cumulative continuity; one in which the expressive possibilities of the instrument are explored intensively though with no little irony.

Heather Ryall proved no mean exponent of this piece, as were Claudia Dehnke and Cameron Howe of Brother by Edmund Finnis. Written while he was composer-in-residence with the London Contemporary Orchestra, its four movements chart a gradually elaborating interplay between violin and viola, evolving from the meditative and incremental to the energetic and demonstrative – without the rapport between these instruments drawing apart in the process. Suffice to add the present performance lacked for nothing in terms of incisiveness or finesse.

It also brought to a close this final BCMG event for 2021. Dates of further performances are being announced in the new year, and it would be a shame if these not to feature a return to Centrala – well worth a visit by anyone who happens to be passing through Birmingham B5.

Further information on the BCMG can be found at their website. For more on NEXT Musicians click here, then on each of the composers names for the websites of Julian Anderson (with an alternative here), Esa-Pekka Salonen, Harrison Birtwistle, Franco Donatoni and Edmund Finnis. Finally for more information on the Centrala venue, click here

In concert – BCMG: Nights


Cage The Perilous Night (1944)
Woolrich Watermark (2010)
Bray Midnight Interludes (2010)
Crumb Four Nocturnes (Night Music II) (1964)
Anderson Capriccio (2017); Sensation – Nuits (2015/16)
Jia Ripples in Spacetime II (2017)

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Mark O’Brien (clarinets), Colette Overdijk (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello) John Reid (piano)]

Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 12 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This recital by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group promised ‘‘An evening of starlight-inspired music’’, the environs of Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space – part of the recently completed refurbishment of Symphony Hall’s main foyers – showcasing a programme which ranged over 75 years of creativity. The attraction of Ice Skate Birmingham provided a scenic backdrop, and if the reflection from a repeating promo-video for B:Music proved on occasion distracting, it never drew attention away from the music heard or those musicians playing it.

John Cage may have been at emotional and aesthetic crossroads at the time of The Perilous Night, but its deft sequence of vignettes – obliquely inspired by Irish folktales – finds him at his most focussed and engaging when writing for prepared piano. It certainly drew a lively response from John Reid, who characterized the pieces with great delicacy but also a rigour which prevented them from sounding decorous. Cage later undertook more ambitious works in the medium, yet without recapturing the elegance and inquisitiveness demonstrated here.

More metaphysical matters are addressed by John Woolrich in Watermark, its imaginative interplay for bass clarinet and violin likened to ‘‘Planets revolving around the same sun’’ and whose juxtaposing same or similar material accrues palpable momentum before its dispersal. One of Charlotte Bray’s most notable scores is her song-cycle Midnight Closes after Thomas Hardy, and Midnight Interludes draws on the same texts for three miniatures that summoned a quizzical and sometimes even brusque response from Mark O’Brien and Ulrich Heinen

When George Crumb wrote Four Nocturnes for violin and piano as the second of his Night Music series, he was embarking on his most productive phase. Echoes of Bartók and Webern are frequent, though the finesse with which the composer elides between these apparent poles of dynamism and introspection is captivating – particularly when realized with the sensitivity and attentiveness of Colette Overdijk, in a performance to remind one that Crumb is too often overlooked as part of a decade (the 1920s) with more than its share of compositional mastery.

Next came two piano pieces by Julian Anderson. Capriccio is a heartfelt yet never turgid memorial to Steven Stuckey, its balance between precision and playfulness a reminder that the latter composer was a leading authority on the music of Lutosławski. More elaborate is Sensation, a cycle of six movements playable either separately or in various combinations – of which Nuits ‘‘presents the sounds and perfumes of the night’’ in music by turns evocative and ominous, all the while encompassing the extent of the keyboard to an enticing degree.

Finally, to Jia Guoping and a welcome revival for Ripples in Spacetime II. Drawing upon cosmic waves as emitted from a pulsar, the piece evolves in terms as emphasise the timbral diversity of its instrumental quartet. Its pitches derived from the acronym CHINA FAST (a radio telescope), its playing techniques evoke traditional Chinese instruments over the course of a capricious interplay between those competing (and ultimately irreconcilable?) claims of innovation and tradition – making for an absorbing end to a thoughtfully planned programme.

Hopefully BCMG will return to this performance-space during the second half of this season (details of which are imminent). Next month sees a recital by the musicians of NEXT at the Centrala Gallery in the suburb of Digbeth, providing another change of scene and ambience.

Further information on future events can be found at the BCMG website