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.

London Sinfonietta 50th Anniversary Concert

Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Simon Haram (saxophone), London Sinfonietta , London Sinfonietta Academy Alumni / David Atherton, George Benjamin, Vladimir Jurowski

Birtwistle The Message (2007)
Stravinsky Octet (1923)
Ligeti Chamber Concerto (1970)
Deborah Pritchard River Above (2018) (World premiere)
Samantha Fernando Formations (2018) (World premiere)
Abrahamsen Left, alone for piano (left hand) & orchestra (2015) (London premiere)
Various Encore! (14 Variations on a Hornpipe by Purcell) (2018) (World premiere)

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 24 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here (available until 22 February 2018)

With a bold slogan Unfinished Business – We’re 50, the London Sinfonietta illustrated at their birthday concert exactly why the ensemble remains such a vital cog in the musical life of the capital and the UK.

Their relentless drive for the new, the original, and the game-changing, is coupled with a level of musicianship that remains at the very highest in all they do. This concert reminded us of those things, while a couple of tactful presentations drew attention to the inspirations behind the music, as well as highlighting those who were sadly not able to experience the half-centenary birthday.

To the music – and a short fanfare to begin in the form of The Message, written for the Sinfonietta’s 40th birthday by one of the composers to help shape the ensemble, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (from 4:43 on the broadcast link above). It began proceedings with appropriate ceremony, brilliantly played and controlled by the spotlit trio of clarinettist Mark van der Wiel, trumpeter Alistair Mackie and percussionist David Hockings.

Stravinsky’s Octet followed (from 7:43-23:19), conducted by one of the ensemble’s founders, Sir David Atherton. This was a colourful account, enjoying the outdoorsy and often playful writing for the less-than-usual combination of flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone.

The short introduction ushered in the perky main theme of the first movement (from 9:12), but it was in the second movement (12:01) where the Sinfonietta really excelled, the flurries of notes brilliantly delivered by clarinets and bassoons. The third movement (12:10) enjoyed Stravinsky’s pointed interactions between the instruments, bassoons again dictating the rhythmic impetus.

The first half ended with Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, written in 1970 and continuing to dazzle with its innovations in tone and sonority (from 27:35-47:05). Atherton worked with the composer on the score, so this ‘first hand’ performance had real authority. It was a performance of exceptional detail, the atmospheric effects hushing the audience almost in to a stage of hypnosis in the quieter moments.

By complete contrast the harsher interventions had the power to make the listener jump, meaning a return to the state of hypnosis was needed for some nerves to be kept intact! The players were terrifically alive to the changes in mood and colour, and in those loud moments (e.g. 38:54) Clive Williamson’s piano added an edge of visceral power.

If the first half was a summation of the London Sinfonietta’s expertise with established 20th century repertoire, the second reaffirmed their commitment to the very new.

Deborah Pritchard’s commission River Above, a world premiere, gave us a marked change in sonority as we turned to the solo saxophone of Simon Haram. This was a brilliantly played piece, exploring the timbre of the instrument to good effect through long-breathed phrases (1:28:00-1:36:49 on the broadcast).

This was followed by a second world premiere, Samantha Fernando’s Formations (1:40:41-1:49:17) for an ensemble of 15 players. This was much more immediate in its impact, beginning with imposing block chords before moving to a section with sharp, barbed wire edges to the texture. Throughout there were fascinating and colourful sonorities and strong tonal associations, before the piece began to move forward with greater purpose towards the end, which if anything came too soon.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has enjoyed a close association with the ensemble since the late 1960s, so the inclusion – and London premiere – of Left, alone, a Concerto for piano (left hand) and orchestra (1:58:30-2:19:00), conducted by George Benjamin, was wholly appropriate. The much larger orchestra and piano required a considerable break while the heroic front of house team expanded the, but the wait was worth it – for this was an apt choice.

Starting with a real show of strength, soloist Tamara Stefanovich had terrific energy, the piano outlining a bold rhythmic profile in the lower register but then moving higher, accompanied by the large ensemble. As Abrahamsen says in the interesting interview with Sara Mohr-Pietsch on the radio broadcast, the wiry tones of the large ensemble are essential to the overall sound, preferable to the fuller symphony orchestra approach. This was clear as the piece progressed, becoming less of a battle between left hand and orchestra; more an integration of the two different sound worlds, so that when twinned with the bassoons at the end the sound palette burbled like a hot spring.

Finally there was a collaborative commission, a collage of Variations on a Hornpipe by Henry Purcell (from 2:24:31-2:42:46 on the broadcast link), conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The variations were written by 14 composers with Sinfonietta connections, and were followed by an altered statement of the hornpipe itself written by 10 more. All contributions were woven together under the direction of John Woolrich, who composed the beginning and end.

The best advice here is to listen to the introduction on the radio, then to guess who might be the composer of each fragment as the piece proceeds! A stately, ceremonial air surrounded the piece at its start but gradually the variations moved it further from the source. Perhaps inevitably the fragmented approach led to a disjointed whole at times, with a short attention span – due to the number of composers involved rather than Woolrich’s sterling work in getting the music together.

It was however a suitable showcase for the Sinfonietta as an ensemble, proving beyond doubt once again that their virtuosity knows no bounds, and ended with a flourish – as though to say, “Here’s to another 50 years, at the very least”. And so say all of us!

A 50th anniversary tribute will follow on these pages soon.

Further listening

You can listen to an album of Hans Abrahamsen’s music made by the London Sinfonietta in 1997 on Spotify: