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:

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 8: Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth – A Tribute to Oliver Knussen

Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Knussen …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell (1995) (from 2:15 on the broadcast link below)
Birtwistle Fantasia upon all the notes (2011) (9:29)
Freya Waley-Cohen Naiad (2019, world premiere) (20:14)
Knussen Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ (1972, rev, 2018) (30:54)
Abrahamsen Herbstlied (1992, rev. 2009) (38:58)
Alastair Putt Halazuni (2012) (47:36)
Knussen Songs without Voices (1991-2) (tbc)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 9 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The BBC Proms’ 800-year odyssey of music over eight weeks at the Cadogan Hall reached the present day in the company of the UK’s newest orchestra.

The Knussen Chamber Orchestra took its bow at the Aldeburgh Festival this year. Created specifically in memory and celebration of Oliver Knussen (above), it is an ensemble for commission and festival appearances, unrestricted in the repertoire it will perform – in that way very much reflecting the approach of its dedicatee. Comprising orchestral principals and budding young talent, it also reflects Knussen’s ability to communicate with musicians regardless of their standing.

Knussen is still greatly missed, a towering figure in British music in the latter part of the 20th century and the 21st until now. Tales have emerged not just of his mentoring of young composers and influence on the established writers, but of a sparkling personality and wit, a dinner companion par excellence. As a conductor he made several richly inventive programmes for the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble, and as a composer his small but perfectly formed catalogue is required listening for any budding contemporary composer of today. Like the composers he adored, particularly Stravinsky and Webern, his is a musical language that speaks directly through an economy of means.

That much was immediately evident in the three and a half minutes of …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell, which used the colours of clarinet, violin, cello and piano to lasting effect. Knussen moved the omnipresent middle ‘C’ – the ‘one note’ – around the parts effortlessly, enjoying the harmonic diversions possible around it and alternating solemnity with mischief. The piece proved both a homage to Purcell and a brief spark of invention, and was ideally weighted by the soloists.

Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes has potential for mischief in its title but is in effect a typically serious piece. Written for an ensemble of seven players this was led with authority by harpist Céline Saout, who effectively drove the piece through its initial jagged outlines. The colours available to Birtwistle were exploited through music of stern countenance, its few tender asides to be cherished as the exception rather than the rule. Only at the end, with little points of pitch from solo instruments, did the mood lighten.

In a charming conversation with BBC Radio 3 host Petroc Trelawny, Freya Waley-Cohen revealed Knussen’s qualities as a tutor and a ‘wonderful person’. Naiad (20:14 on the broadcast) was a fitting tribute, fulfilling Cohen’s description of reflections from the scales of fish and dew on a spider’s web with music that cast a rarefied light, such as the sun does this time of year. The attractive melodic cells rippled with a slight chill, piercing moments of clarity from the woodwind contrasted by fuzzier asides from the strings. Although Cohen’s description of a slow piece and a fast piece rubbing up together was more difficult to follow, that did not mar in the slightest an enjoyable and meaningful piece, whose last few bars had a lilting four-note melody that hung on the air, leaving an enchanted atmosphere in its wake.

Bassoonist Jonathan Davies then stepped forward for Knussen’s highly virtuosic Study for Metamorphosis (30:54), based on Kafka. There were some extraordinary sounds here, the composer exploiting the cartoon-like persona the bassoon can elicit but also reminding us of the instrument’s versatility, its ability to paint pictures both happy and sad. Davies was superb and clearly enjoyed the experience.

Hans Abrahamsen’s Herbstlied followed (from 38:58), an extended arrangement and combination of a Danish song and two J.S. Bach subjects from The Art of Fugue. This instrumental version was unexpectedly moving, its picture painting of leaves ‘falling as from far…’ most apt for the time of year and given a vivid account by the five players. The cor anglais of Tom Blomfield added a unique sourness to the tone, and the downward motion of the melodies indicated sorrow, but there was still a sweeter melancholy here that stayed with the listener long afterwards.

We moved into Alastair Putt’s wind quintet Halazuni (47:36) without a break. This was a less affecting piece, more calculated in its depiction of a spiral (its title is the Persian word for spiral) The colours of the instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon – were frequently attractive, and while the music did on occasion feel predetermined, there was a clear end goal.

The best was saved until last in the form of Knussen’s Songs Without Voices (not yet linked to the broadcast on BBC Sounds). A group of four pieces for an ensemble of eight players, the Songs use vivid colour combinations which bring the composer’s imagery to life. The melodies, though short, are incredibly meaningful.

The first three Songs are wordless settings of texts by Walt Whitman, starting with Winter’s Foil, which was alive with bird calls and blustery winds. As elsewhere Wigglesworth secured playing of great poise and personality, led with characteristic authority by violinist Clio Gould. Prairie Sunset showed off the colours of the ensemble both separately and in combination, before the delicate outlines of First Dandelion were revealed. ‘simple and fresh and fair’.

Finally we heard Elegiac Arabesques, Knussen’s tribute to Polish-English composer Andrezj Panufnik. This wove an incredibly poignant thread, suitable in its own way as a memorial to the composer-conductor commemorated with such grace and feeling here.

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

A playlist featuring works both composed and conducted by Oliver Knussen can be heard below. It includes …upon one note from this concert, though not the Songs Without Voices – which are in fact available on the Erato label:

Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage