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Seen and Heard Festival Review

 

 

 

28th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 18 – 27 November 2005, reviewed by John Warnaby

 

 

It would be difficult to envisage a dull Huddersfield Festival, but the 2005 event proved more auspicious than most. As guest Artistic Director, Tom Service devised an essentially simple strategy: exploring a wide range of styles during the first half of the Festival, before concentrating on composers of a modernist persuasion, especially Helmut Lachenmann, whose latest work provided the climax of the Festival.

It was not possible to attend the opening concert by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on 18 November, but the idea of commissioning new works for a period instrument band is intriguing. Other early music ensembles should be encouraged to do likewise.

The first full day of the Festival began with a recital by violinist David Alberman, soprano Lore Lixenberg and pianist Rolf Hind. There were songs by Bent Soerensen and Rolf Hind, plus solo pieces for violin and piano by Simon Holt; but the main items were for violin and piano: e(i)ther, which showed how much Chris Dench has mellowed since settling in Australia, and XenakisDikhtas, which ultimately dwarfed everything else.

James Wood’s New London Chamber Choir with guitarist Alan Thomas gave an afternoon recital in honour of Giacinto Scelsi’s centenary. Indeed, one of the themes of the 2005 Festival was choral music. Another was composers who defy easy categorisation. Scelsi belonged to the latter, and if applause had been withheld until the end of the programme, the ritual character of his compositions would have been emphasized. The unorthodox, but austere guitar pieces provided variety and maintained the prevailing atmosphere.

Lasse Thoresen was also unique in that his knowledge of contemporary composition, particularly using electronics, was offset by a strong attachment to Norwegian traditional music. His five-movement suite for traditional singer and sinfonietta, entitled Loep, Lokk og Linjer (Chases, Cattle Calls and Charts), which occupied most of BIT 20’s evening concert, conducted by HK Gruber, was definitely a hybrid, but was sufficiently well-balanced to ensure cohesion. Some sections called for unorthodox tunings, and the score was infused with microtonal inflections. The soloist was Berit Opheim for whom Thoresen has written for more than ten years.  The concert had started with Ning, for ensemble, in which programmatic elements were combined with the use of fractals. This was the first of three works by Rolf Wallin heard during the first half of the Festival which revealed him in a more favourable aspect than his contributions to the 2004 Huddersfield Festival.

A second ensemble piece, the even more successful The Age of Wire and String – also inspired by modern fiction – was included in Cikada’s concert, conducted by Christian Eggen, the following evening. Whereas, in the BIT 20 programme there was a clear contrast between the modernism of Wallin and the post-modernism of Thoresen, Eivind Buene’s Calvino-influenced Possible Cities, for ensemble, included by Cikada, was less easy to define. However, it suggested that Norway has several generations of gifted composers.

Yet the most striking item was Stefano Gervasoni’s Godspell, setting texts by the American poet, Philip Levine. The choice of English texts has encouraged Gervasoni to dispense with the rather austere style of his earlier scores, and it was far superior to the two pieces with theatrical elements by Carola Bauckholt, which completed the programme.

Earlier, the lunchtime concert was given by the Cikada String Quartet. Norwegian composers were absent, but they introduced the Japanese theme with pieces by Jo Kondo and Toshio Hosokawa. These were characterised by an absence of a regular pulse, but in other respects they reflected distinctive personalities, possibly influenced by different aspects of Western music. Thus, Kondo’s Yarrow, for accordion and string quartet, contained echoes of Feldman, and exhibited a tendency to blend diverse instrumental combinations into an individual sound world. In contrast, Hosokawa’s development was indebted to the post war avant-garde. Yet Landscape 1 – his second string quartet – established its unique individuality among his three quartets, his ability to write for similar or identical forces in a variety of ways.

The remaining items were no less striking. Hans Abrahamsen’s Three Little Nocturnes, for accordion and string quartet, were precisely that: full of intriguing potential which could only by fulfilled with the addition of further examples. Despite their brevity, Abrahamsen explored differing levels of integration between accordion and string quartet, not least in the central nocturne, where conventional accordion figures were combined with extraordinary quartet writing.

In comparison, James Dillon’s Third Quartet was conventionally modernist, in that it was unified by linking both the outer, and the inner movements. It was also a transitional work, en route to the new quartet – see below.

Ensemble Nomad is Japan’s leading new music group, It was not possible to hear their first concert, devoted to Jo Kondo, but their second programme of mainly Japanese music the following day demonstrated their versatility in dealing with a variety of compositional styles. Misato Mochizuki’s All that is including me showed that she has developed a personal voice out of a close knowledge of recent European trends.

On the other hand, Takeo Hoshiya’s individuality, as expressed in his lively Instability Principle, revealed no allegiance to a particular development. Jo Kondo’s Gardenia was a characteristically fluent piece, but ultimately, the most arresting item was Claude Vivier’s Paramirabo, by virtue of its highly idiosyncratic harmonic world.

The first performance of Michael Finnissy’s extended song cycle, Whitman, for soprano and piano, had to be postponed until the 2006 Festival, owing to the indisposition of Kirsten Blaise. Instead, Nicolas Hodges gave an unscheduled recital, programming Finnissy’s Nine Romantics and Mit Arnold Schoenberg. Between them, they illustrated most aspects of Finnissy’s piano music. The discourse of Nine Romantics was generated through the transformation of three musical characters into various styles, each with 19th-century associations. Mit Arnold Schoenberg was generally more contemplative, but showed Finnissy identifying convincingly with Schoenberg’s atonal language.

The concert by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart was disappointing. The Town Hall was hardly the most appropriate venue, the audience was woefully sparse, and though the individual items were technically challenging, their expressive content was limited.

The multi-media collaboration between Olga Neuwirth and Roberto Paci Daló produced one of the more unusual events of the Festival – Italia anno zero – drawing on texts by Leopardi, Gramsci and Pasolini. This was an elaborate version, using a small ensemble of bass clarinets, electric and acoustic guitars, sampler and live electronics, of projects dating back to Luigi Nono’s politically-inspired compositions of the 1960s. Thus, the tape part interspersed a spoken commentary with electronically treated recordings of familiar voices, crowd sounds, etc. Equally typical was a preoccupation with Italy’s Fascist tendencies, but the final result was more derivative than truly original.

23 November was a particularly busy day, but only one event was outstandingly memorable. This was a relatively brief programme of three works for small orchestra by Toshio Hosokawa, introduced by the composer and performed by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Diego Masson. Although scored for similar forces, the three pieces – Drawing, Interim, and Singing Garden – written between 1994 and 2004, were remarkably varied, illustrating strikingly different facets of Hosokawa’s personality.

John Snyders’ lunchtime piano recital included three pieces by Christopher Fox, as part of a 50th-birthday survey of his output. Despite its originality, Fox’s music is somewhat intractable, and his interpretations of popular music in lliK and relliK were characteristically provocative. The most notable item, however, was Richard Rijnvos’ jazz-inspired ‘cross Broadway, which is due to be incorporated into his forthcoming Piano Concerto.

Pagan Nights was the title of the day’s main event, presented by Contemporary Music Network and featuring the Pokrovsky Ensemble and Choir. The first half included a tableau from Stravinsky’s Les Noces, with synthetic-sounding pianos on tape, and an impressive ‘set’ by the vocalist and accordionist, Evelyna Petrova. The single work in the second half was Vladimir Martynov’s Nights in Galicia, which unfolded very slowly, but achieved a remarkable conclusion.

The late-night recital by Nordic Voices began with items redolent of the King’s Singers, but finally reached a measure of substance with Rolf Wallin’s Phonotape, for vocal quartet and computer. This was Wallin’s third significant contribution to the Festival and confirmed him as Norway’s leading composer.

On 24 November, the lunchtime programme by Exaudi was devoted to choral music by Christopher Fox, both with and without organ. Fox’s choral output is essentially experimental, ranging from syllabic settings of radical texts, as in A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory to increasingly experimental settings of Allen Ginsburg in American Choruses. The latter was rather static and over-long, but this was an intriguingly varied programme which also included The Missouri Harmony, for organ.

The first of the Ives Ensemble’s concerts failed to reach their usual high standard, largely because many of the pieces were disappointing. One should however mention Carola Bauckholt’s piece In gewohnter Umgebung, in which she successfully combines the musical elements with the visual material.

Noriko Kawai’s late-night performance of all five volumes of James Dillon’s The Book of Elements was one of the highlights of the Festival. Her highly concentrated performance revealed The Book of Elements as a particularly valuable introduction to Dillon’s recent output, and equally as one of the finest cycles of piano music of recent years.

In between, Quatuor Diotima presented the first of their two programmes, which had two distinct strands. On the one hand, there was the UK premiere of Joel-François Durand’s recent quartet, whose complex discourse was partly inspired by Beethoven’s final quartet. A link could therefore be established with Lachenmann, whose quartets are all indebted to the tradition established by Beethoven.

On the other hand, Lachenmann’s Second Quartet not only achieves a strong sense of organic growth out of a remarkable range of instrumental sonorities, but also explores the relationship between sound and silence, thereby linking it with Webern’s Bagatelles, and Hosokawa’s Third Quartet: Silent Flowers. Together with his First String Quartet: Urbilder, Silent Flowers again demonstrated the range of his compositional style.

Quatuor Diotima’s second programme on 25 November was rather different, but equally good. It included Ives’ Second String Quartet, and XenakisAkea, for piano and string quartet, written at a time when his style was entering a less abrasive phase. However, the main focus of attention was James Dillon’s Fourth Quartet. In a pre-concert talk, Dillon suggested that he had become interested in the experimental approach of Haydn, as opposed to the developmental manner of Beethoven, and it might be possible to interpret the five volumes of Dillon’s Book of Elements as a progressive quest for new ways of creating large scale structures.

In recent years, Dillon had tended to simplify his style, but the new Quartet belied this trend. As with the Book of Elements, it began episodically, but gradually achieved overall coherence. Lasting a little over 20 minutes, it can already be regarded as a significant addition to the string quartet repertoire.

Unfortunately, your reviewer missed Claire Edwardes’ percussion recital, with its wide range of composers. On the other hand, the Ives Ensemble’s second concert was also the second event devoted to the music of Christopher Fox, this time concentrating mainly on his instrumental output. As with his choral music, the range is considerable and difficult to categorise. Etwas lebhaft employed the same forces as Webern’s Concerto op. 24, and was dedicated to his memory on the centenary of his birth. Yet its strident character was far removed from Webern’s aesthetic standpoint.

A slice through translucence was altogether more interesting, providing a tantalising glimpse of the new work Fox is writing for the Ives Ensemble, of which it will form the final part. Straight lines in broken times 2 was written roughly halfway between the two pieces already discussed. It contained occasional echoes of bell-ringing, combining some of the stridency of Etwas lebhaft with the pattern-making of A slice through translucence. However, it was not as convincing as the latter.

The second half featured the UK premiere of Everything You Need To Know, for singer and ensemble – an amalgam of vocal, solo instrumental and ensemble pieces which amounted to probably the most curious event of the Festival. The performance lasted about 45 minutes, with the singer adopting an increasingly theatrical role. It included a raucous procession of wind, brass and percussion around the hall, so that the event quickly assumed the character of a ‘happening’. Even more than American Choruses, Everything You Need To Know – at least in this version – was influenced by Charles Ives and the American experimental tradition.

The final two days were the culmination of the Festival, with the emphasis on performing recent examples of modernist composition alongside outstanding works from the 1950s by the original generation of the post war avant-garde. The one exception, on 26 November, was an amplified recital by the Smith Quartet, which included Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet. When your reviewer suggested that the work was sub-Bartok, he received the reasonable retort that this was an insult to Bartok.

In comparison, The Second String Quartet, ‘The Cranning’, by David Flynn – winner of the 2004 Young Composers’ Award, and the String Quartet, Songs for the MB, by Anna Meredith, were definitely more rewarding. Christopher Fox’s Clarinet Quintet, with Roger Heaton as soloist, illustrated a subtler aspect of Fox’s personality, with microtones playing a significant role.

 

Psappha had previously created a more favourable impression with their lunchtime programme of Stockhausen’s Kontakte, and a particularly convincing interpretation of Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maitre, but inevitably, the day was dominated by the first appearances of both Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Recherche.

In the main evening concert, Ensemble Modern placed two of Lachenmann’s earlier scores in the context of pieces by his principal teachers. The fluency of their performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontrapunkte was in marked contrast to familiar interpretations from the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Luigi Nono’s Canti del Tredici made a more powerful impression, its austerity indicating the extent of the composer’s debt to late Stravinsky, even while he was extending his use of serial principles.

Lachenmann has described Trio Fluido, for clarinet, viola and percussion as ‘pre-historic’, but besides its attractive sonorities and impressive coherence, it was an attempt to extend the ideas of the avant-garde while other radical composers were modifying their outlook. By the time Salut for Caudwell, for two guitars, was composed, Lachenmann was fully preoccupied with questions of sound production and had developed the concept of ‘musique concrète instrumentale’. The spoken elements also pointed to a political dimension, thereby stressing the continuing influence of Nono. This was an intriguingly planned, thought-provoking and outstandingly performed programme.

In contrast, Ensemble Recherche explored Lachenmann’s output in relation to more recent works by other composers. Thus, Lachenmann’s early String Trio, and temA, for voice and small ensemble – key works in the development of his compositional ideas – were heard alongside Jonathan Harvey’s String Trio whose curious opening belied the subtlety of the subsequent discourse, and ensemble pieces by Fabio Nieder and Ivan Fedele. The latter’s sextet Immagini da Escher made particularly pleasing use of a mixed ensemble, whereas Nieder’s contribution Sogno 10 lunedi/in una casa/molto gente/musiche son tornado a casa was disappointing.

The main item in Ensemble Recherche’s second programme on 27 November was Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto, for clarinet, doubling bass-clarinet, cello and piano. This can be regarded as a distant relative of Trio Fluido, but by the time it was composed, Lachenmann’s exploration of new playing techniques, together with fragmentary sonorities, had developed to the stage where they could by employed in the creation of largescale structures. The members of Ensemble Recherche clearly knew how to achieve overall unity, but they were equally at home in Wolfgang Rihm’s very different Ueber die Linie VI, for flute, violin and cello.

It has been suggested that Rihm has reached the stage of writing pure music, with no extraneous elements, yet while this may be true in the Ueber die Linie series, the main change exemplified in the new Trio involved a greater emphasis on lyricism, as opposed to expressionism.

Nicolas Hodges returned to give the Festival’s last piano recital. Georges Aperghis is not known for his piano music, so, A tombeau ouvert proved to be a notable discovery. A significant part of Salvatore Sciarrino’s reputation certainly stems from his piano output, but predominantly the Sonatas, which are often experimental and even violently expressionist. By contrast, Perduto in una città d’acque (Lost in a city of waters) was contemplative and lyrical. As it was associated with Venice, and particularly Luigi Nono, it was difficult not to conclude that it was indebted to Sofferte onde serene, but without electronics.

The main work was Lachenmann’s Serynade, one of an increasing number of large scale compositions he has completed since Das Maedchen mit den Schwefelhoelzern. It also marked a return to the piano after a long period concentrating on other genres. Lachenmann utilised the full gamut of playing techniques to generate various overtone series, and resonances. Above all, the discourse revolved around the interaction between sound and silence, and even between sound and noise. In essence, Hodges’ interpretation tended to favour the work’s expressive dimension.

The final concert, presented by Ensemble Modern, conducted by Brad Lubman, fulfilled the objective of bringing the Festival to a memorable climax. It was an inspired idea to perform Nicolaus A. Huber’s 6 Bagatelles, for small ensemble and tape, alongside Lachenmann’s Mouvement (- vor der Erstarrung) since both are key works in careers which share many parallels. Their modernist sensibilities were influenced by Nono’s radical political outlook, especially as regards their re-interpretation of the Austro-German symphonic tradition.

Yet the performance of Huber’s Bagatelles immediately revealed a very different personality, with a penchant for dramatic gestures, including extra-musical effects. The starting point was the briefest of Beethoven’s op. 119 Bagatelle, but Huber quickly incorporated militaristic elements, as well as allusions to popular culture. In short, the Bagatelles exemplified an essentially Brechtian approach to modernism.

In contrast to Huber’s method of integrating widely divergent pieces into a unified structure, Lachenmann’s Mouvement unfolded as a single entity of symphonic proportions. It was one of the earliest works in which his creative personality was fully developed as he demonstrated conclusively that standard compositional procedures could be applied to the sound world he had devised.

The success of Mouvement enabled Lachenmann to embark on a series of ambitious compositions, culminating with his opera. Indeed, allowing for the fact that a spatial dimension has been introduced, Concertini can be considered the recent counterpart of Mouvement, in that it is scored for a slightly larger, but essentially similar ensemble.

Concertini was the latest example of a remarkably productive phase in Lachenmann’s output since the completion of Das Maedchen mit den Schwefelhoelzern. It included a retrospective element, alluding not only to individual items, such as Mouvement or Salut for Caudwell, but also to the concept of musique concrète instrumentale. In short, it was a compendium of Lachenmann’s entire sound world, spatially distributed throughout the hall.

Instrumental solos featured more prominently than hitherto, prompting the suggestion that the title might refer obliquely to the concertino in a concerto grosso. However, the main impression was of the work’s overall vitality as the various sonorities were combined and re-combined, transformed and re-transformed. It may no longer be necessary to add to the musical language Lachenmann has formulated, as its potential would appear to have few limitations.

Concertini was the culmination of an outstanding Festival, but the main events should not obscure the significance of other activities. There were educational projects involving local schools, as well as other members of the community. The Young Composers’ Workshop continued, as did the Hub Shorts, providing an opportunity to hear pieces by young composers, performed by young musicians. The Hub was also the venue for a number of pre-concert talks, plus the debate concerning the difficulty of categorising the many improvisatory and mixed-media activities which are now considered aspects of new music. All these events enhanced the Hub’s significance as a focus for the Festival.

Graham McKenzie, the new Artistic Director, has promised changes, to appeal to new and younger audiences, but he should not interfere with the core of what the Festival has always stood for. The value of Tom Service’s contribution was that he demonstrated there is already an enthusiastic audience for challenging new music, when it is performed by the finest soloists and ensembles. By engaging Ensemble Recherche and Ensemble Modern for two concerts each – in addition to many other memorable programmes – he ensured that 2005 will be regarded as a vintage year in the history of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Five editions of Hear and Now, to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in the New Year, will reflect the highlights. They will be absolutely required listening for anyone who is genuinely interested in new music. 

 

 

John Warnaby

 

 

 

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)