In concert – Echoes/BCMG NEXT @ Centrala

bcmg-next-centrala

Anderson Scherzo (with trains) (1993)
Salonen
Pentatonic Étude (2008)
Birtwistle
Duets for Storab (1983)
Donatoni
Soft (1989)
Finnis
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 NEXT @ Coventry Cathedral

bcmg-next

Kerkour Procession in Remembrance (2010)
Salonen Pentatonic Étude (2010, rev. 2014)
Roxburgh Wordsworth Miniatures (1998)
Birtwistle Duets for Storab (1984)
Lachenmann Pression (1969)
Saunders Bite (2016)

NEXT [Leila Hooton, Rebecca Speller, Gavin Stuart (flutes), Emily Wilson (clarinets), Cameron Howe (viola), Carwyn Jones (cello)]

Coventry Cathedral
Wednesday 3 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by NEXT (musicians training as performers of contemporary music in a partnership between Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) was to have featured Gérard Grisey’s penultimate work Vortex Temporum, but a player’s withdrawal after testing positive for Covid led to this alternative programme of solos and duos from the past half-century; one that, coming together as an effective and appealing recital in its own right, showed no sign of having been assembled at short notice.

The Anglo-Moroccan composer Brahim Kerkour is little heard in the UK, though Procession in Remembrance (the central piece in Three Modules for Sketches of Miniatures) suggests a continuation of spectral thinking (Kerkour studied with Tristan Murail) for the way alto flute and bass clarinet intertwined to create raptly translucent textures at once abstract yet tangible. Music to which Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude offered a notable foil – this paraphrase on a passage from Bartók’s unfinished Viola Concerto putting the solo instrument through its paces, before reclaiming the original in an understated apotheosis realized by Cameron Howe with due sensitivity. Hopefully a full-scale viola concerto by Salonen will yet be forthcoming.

Two sets of interdependent pieces came next. Edwin Roxburgh remains best known for larger-scale compositions, but Wordsworth Miniatures finds him no less adept when working on a more limited canvas – poems by the English author serving as the titles for these four deftly contrasted clarinet miniatures which Emily Wilson rendered with appropriately lyrical poise. Written while resident on the Inner Hebridean isle of Raasay, Harrison Birtwistle’s Duets for Storab draws its inspiration from three locations featuring the name of a Viking prince whose shipwreck, pursual and death are not so much portrayed as evoked by the six atmospheric and plaintive pieces with flautists Rebecca Speller and Leila Hooton in (mainly) whimsical accord.

Finally, to two more substantial and combative solo pieces which both conveyed the essence of their respective composers. Helmut Lachenmann’s Pression expounded a radical notion of ‘instrumental musique-concrète’ explored in later orchestral and chamber works – its utilizing cello as a means of sonic inclusiveness summoning a trenchant response from Carwyn Jones. Even more visceral in content, Bite finds Rebecca Saunders draws on the thirteenth and final prose from Beckett’s Texts for Nothing in this monologue for bass flute whose phonetic and syntactical elements are subsumed into a tensile continuum where anticipations and echoes merge freely or often forcefully – Gavin Stewart entering into its spirit with evident resolve.

Such a programme might not have seemed suited to the expanse of Coventry Cathedral, but the situating of musicians and listeners in a semi-circle adjacent to the entrance and at right-angles to the nave kept proceedings well within focus and allowed for the acoustic’s natural ambience to come through. Hopefully the Grisey can be rescheduled in due course, but the qualities of these pieces and their performances could not be gainsaid. Meanwhile, BCMG returns next Friday with a late-evening recital BCMG Nights in the foyer of Symphony Hall.

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

In concert – NEXT and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Past the Stars

bcmg-past-the-stars

NEXT [Joe Howson & Mikaela Livadiotis (pianos), Gavin Stewart (bass flute), Olivia Jago (violin)

Adams Hallelujah Junction (1996)
Saunders Bite (2016)
Mason When Joy Became Mixed with Grief (2007)

Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Geoffrey Paterson

Birtwistle Cantus Iambeus (2004)
Vir Wheeling Past the Stars (2007) – Songs 3 and 4; Hayagriva (2005) [UK premiere]

Town Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 20 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have taken 15 months plus a couple of false alarms, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (above) finally resumed live performances en masse this afternoon and with this wide-raging concert typical of its programming across more than three decades of music-making.

Not least with its throwing the spotlight onto players of the next generation, the opening half featuring NEXT musicians as mentored by their senior colleagues. Things got underway with Hallelujah Junction, John Adams’ alternately incisive and soulful evoking of a truck-stop on the California-Nevada border; along with a tribute to orchestra manager Ernest Fleischmann, which doubtless explains its heightened peroration. Nor, despite some occasional vagaries of coordination, was there any doubting the conviction of Joe Howson and Mikaela Livadiotis.

From two pianists situated amid tables in the stalls to a bass flautist just in front of the organ console: Gavin Stewart made the most of this unlikely context with a committed reading of Rebecca SaundersBite, less a setting than paraphrase of the thirteenth from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing in which words or syllables are variously sounded in anticipation, or as consequence of the flute’s contribution. It certainly left a fragmented, even rebarbative impression compared to the seamlessness of When Joy Became Mixed with GriefChristian Mason’s contemplation of a sixth-century Jainist account over several ages of declining natural and human wonder; in which violinist Olivia Jago rendered the music’s gently enveloping pathos with unfailing poise, as well as a sure sense of where this deceptively understated music might be headed.

BCMG accordingly took to the stage for Cantus Iambeus, among the more recent of Harrison Birtwistle’s curtain-raisers for ensemble and arguably his most approachable in the unfolding of expressive contours and its frequently diaphanous textures; all underpinned by the role of iambic rhythm in promoting continuity through to an almost inviting final cadence. Nor was there a lack of that intensive interplay as has been a hallmark of this composer’s music from the outset, and to which these musicians responded with their customary precision and verve.

The other pieces (both included on a new NMC release) were by Param Vir, whose music has been a welcome if undervalued presence over four decades. Firstly, the latter two items from his song-cycle Wheeling Past the Stars after Rabindranath Tagore – the charm and vivacity of Grandfather’s Holiday then musing inwardness of New Birth, both eloquently rendered by Patricia Auchterlonie with Ulrich Heinen. Finally, to Hayagriva – the horse-headed being and mythological archetype behind a work whose headlong rhythmic energy suddenly moves, via an intricately detailed transition, to a final section whose subdued manner does not preclude music of fastidious textural variety emerging. The analogous sequence ‘red-green-blue’ was reinforced by overhead lighting, even if Vir’s musical trajectory is appreciably more subtle.

BCMG responded to Geoffrey Paterson’s direction with alacrity, not unreasonably pleased to be back performing for a live audience in an impressive indication of what can be expected from this ensemble during the 2021-22 season and barring, one hopes, no more false alarms!

You can find information on further BCMG activities here, while further information on Wheeling Past the Stars by Param Vir can be found at the NMC website

In concert – Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Soliloquies & Dialogues – Music made in Lockdown

bcmg-soliloquies

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Oliver Janes (clarinet), Ryan Linham (trumpet), Colette Overdijk (violin), Julian Warburton (percussion), Amelie Thomas (trumpet)]

Oram Counting Steps – first version (2020)*
Murail Les Ruines circulaires (2006)
Ma Xiao-Qing Back to the Beginning (2020)*
del Avellanal Carreño speak, sing… (2020)*
Donghoon Shin Couplet (2020)*
Howard R (2021)*
Reich New York Counterpoint (1985)
Birtwistle The Message (2008)
Oram Counting Steps – second version (2020)*

[Works indicated * received their live premieres]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been unable to present live events during the past 15 months, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has not been inactive – commissioning a series of pieces from composers around the world for performance online as part of its Soliloquies & Dialogues project. Having been performed at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery last Friday, a representative selection of these was this evening presented at CBSO Centre – in the process, confirming that ‘‘while we were all unified by lockdown, our reactions were still highly individual’’.

Tristan Murail’s Les Ruines circulaires was written well before the pandemic, but it vividly encapsulates the ‘dialogues’ aspect – clarinet and violin in confrontation, before opening out into a melodic discourse in a two-way process that might always be the same, only different.

It was vividly realized tonight, violinist Colette Overdijk then having two solo pieces – the first a live hearing for Ma Xiao-Quing’s evocative Back to the Beginning which, while less demonstrative than the online premiere, integrated elements of music and speech with greater subtlety and finesse. Donghoon Shin’s Couplet placed its expressive contrasts in stark relief – thus, an ‘aria and toccata’ in which long-breathed lyricism was succeeded by music whose gestural force and its rapidly accumulating energy were rendered with no mean virtuosity.

Between these works, clarinettist Oliver Janes gave the premiere of speak, sing…, where José Del Avellanal Carreño took advantage of new developments in Machine Learning technology – recorded improvisations by the soloist forming a basis for the interaction between ‘human’ responses as written by the composer with ‘artificial’ responses as generated by the prism-samplernn programme. The outcome was an eventful and unpredictable dialogue, though the subfusc quality of the electronic element rather stood in the way of more engaging synthesis.

Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint was no less radical in its interplay between clarinet and tape four decades ago, Janes (understandably) sounding more at ease in the dialogue with his pre-recorded self in this performance of appealing deftness and not a little quizzical humour. Beforehand, percussionist Julian Warburton took the stage for the live premiere of R, where Emily Howard explores geometrical concepts as well as the possibilities of sonic growth and decay in a piece whose variety is more immediate given its concision and sense of purpose. Afterwards, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Message provided a telling foil in its halting dialogue between clarinet and trumpet – tersely curtailed by the arrival of military drum; a piece that commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the London Sinfonietta in the pithiest of terms.

Framing the whole, two versions of Celeste Oram’s Counting Steps anticipated then reflected on what was heard. Taking its cue from Fux’s treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, specifically two aphorisms with their expressing strength through courage in the face of weakness and decay, its methodically elaborating trumpet part against a graphic video projection was confidently rendered by Ryan Linham – with, in the second version, Amelie Thomas hardly less assured in support. An arresting framework in which to present this always enterprising programme.

You can find information on the next BCMG live performance here, while Colette Overdijk gives the online premiere of Back to the Beginning here

Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert: