Almost all of the featured composers were on hand to introduce their works and take part in a round-table discussion on the afternoon of the 31st in the CBSO Centre, which, while focusing mainly on social rather than aesthetic issues concerning art music in present-day society, at least avoided the them and us tendency often encountered in events of this nature.
Two of the composers who figured prominently were Finnish and, lest anyone draw conclusions with regard to Sakari Oramos role in proceedings, it is worth remembering the degree to which Finnish composers and musicians now figure on the world stage; shaping the course of contemporary music from both a creative and an interpretative perspective.
Esa-Pekka Salonen has worked on both sides of the divide though, of his pieces featured, only Floof! (1982) is from before he embarked on an international conducting career. Subtitled Songs of a Homeostatic Homer, which describes as well as anything this left-field cabaret derived from a novel by Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem, the music is amplified for an artificial impact a parallel to the computer-speak relayed by the soprano. Anu Komsis impressive coloratura range was much in evidence in this tour de force of vocal acting, its antecedents in the seriously nonsensical vocal output of Ligeti and Berio.
The other three works of Salonens are from the intensive period of composition begun during the mid-1990s and reinforced at the turn of the Millennium. LA Variations (1996) recall Coplands Orchestral Variations in the way a chord sequence can be horizontalized into melodic lines the tension between them underlying the 17 variations, or variational phases, which follow. For all its scintillating impact, the orchestra is resourcefully used nowhere more than in the final harmonic synthesis which does not so much resolve the process as sublimate it in a neat pay-off.
If LA Variations is intended as a tribute to post-war Modernism, then Foreign Bodies (2001) is surely a response to West Coast Minimalism. The three movements proceed in a schematic fast-slow-fast trajectory, exhibiting ample orchestral virtuosity but little corresponding emotional intensity. Without this, the work never throws off its pervading rhythmic and dynamic flatness excitement residing in the intention rather than the act.
Rather more modest in its dimensions, Lachen verlernt (2002), for solo violin, refers to the laughing unlearnt in the Prayer song from Schoenbergs Pierrot Lunaire, though the emotional unease evoked (in or out of context) is less immediate than the Bachian evolution through an intensifying series of variations or, rather, variants of the germinal chord sequence towards a sparkling, Paganinian close. As an exercise in compositional skill, this was impressive as was Sakari Oramos uninhibited rendition.
The presence of Magnus Lindberg offered a welcome indication for Birmingham audiences of why the Related Rocks festival of his music during 2001/2 in London was such a memorable retrospective. Put simply, Lindbergs orchestral output over the last 15 years has few equals in its combining of intricacy and impact heart and brain in telling accord. Twine (1986), a rare example of solo piano music in his catalogue, is a harbinger of the harmonic clarity increasingly evident in his music. Proceeding as a sequence of textural layers, continuity is ensured by keyboard resonance and an intuitive recall of logic salient motifs. Rolf Hinds performance seemed subdued dynamically, almost as if anticipating the elaborate, luminous textures of the orchestral works to come.
To which textures the Piano Concerto (1994) brings expressive restraint as well as a formal focus. The three sections, the latter two connected by a cadenza of cumulative velocity, are drawn into tense continuity climaxing in a sonorous harmonic complex. Whether or not this process which has served the composer well over the past decade in itself secures real musical substance, the clarity in Lindbergs rendering of the solo part, and his synchronicity with the orchestra, was never in doubt.
Yet it was his Gran Duo (2000), its polyphonic layers of woodwind and brass projecting effortlessly in Symphony Halls acoustic, that left the stronger impression. While the scoring is akin to Stravinskys Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the musical progress eschews abrupt juxtaposition for a sustained unfolding of eight musical characters each with its defined tempo and texture over five subtly contrasted sections. The poise and organic coherence that results is more Sibelian than Stravinskian in its formal clarity, and wholly satisfying in its seamless follow-through.
In addition to the Finnish contingent, the festival featured three British composers. The two pieces by Jonathan Harvey are among his strongest of recent years particularly White as Jasmine (1999), a song-cycle of four poems by 12th-century Indian mystic Mahadevi and two by her spiritual mentor Allama Prabhu. A symmetrical arrangement is discernible in the two-stage progression from anticipation, through anguish, to enlightenment; the latter marked by tonal plateaux emerging out of the harmonic density with the quality of whitening light evocatively conveyed by Komsis searching rendition.
Tranquil Abiding (1998) is a less intense way into Harveys spiritual concerns. The meditative overall feel, with its underlying breathing rhythm and fanning-out of pitches above, is easily absorbed on a conceptual as well as musical level. Maybe the melodic arabesques that develop are more an elaboration of the actual time-span than a realising of its inherent potential, though there is no doubting the depths plumbed gently but insistently as the piece evolves.
Simon Holt was represented by one of his most intriguing recent works. eco-pavan (1998) marks something of a new direction in his music, drawing intensity from the very inwardness of its musical gestures in particular, the subdued dynamics and melded timbres of the ensemble, with its sparing employment of gongs, cimbalom and low woodwind (notably bass flute and heckelphone). The piano assumes a defining role from the outset, expounding fragmentary ideas to which other instruments variously contribute in an atmosphere of hieratic calm.
It was wholly appropriate that Julian Anderson the CBSOs Composer in Association be featured, and by a trio of works demonstrating his command of orchestral writing on both a large and small scale. Inspired by W.B Yeats, The Crazed Moon (1997) is an unorthodox and powerful threnody its contrasts in mood enhancing the overall feeling of unity and catharsis: a telling tribute to composer Graham Smith, his promise cut short when only 23. Haunting offstage fanfares frame an elegy whose slow underlying pace is belied by the elaborate textures of the main climax gongs and divided strings creating a heady aura before the orchestra eclipses itself in a sequence of valedictory chorales.
A very different proposition, Alhambra Fantasy (2000) evokes the Andalusian palace both in terms of its physical presence and cultural significance. The former comes through in the percussive, toccata-like motion with which the work reaches its central climax; the latter in the lyrical strength and gradual accumulation of power which sustains the music through to its close. The result is a two-part fantasia of strong contrasts and cohesiveness evocative in its associations yet satisfying in its abstraction.
As, albeit to very different musical ends, is Shir Hashirim (2001) its emotion stemming not so much from the Song of Songs text, as from a seemingly uninhibited use of Hebrew. The alluring instrumentation is matched by the expressive vocal writing vividly delivered by Komsi which encompasses stark syllabic setting, vocalise and elaborate melismata, the whole couched in modally-inflected harmonies which accentuate the musics ecstatic yearning to potent effect.
The remainder of the programming consisted of five works from five European composers who together constitute an amalgam of achievement and potential such as any new music festival should aspire to. György Ligetis Lontano (1967), a modern classic bar none, utilises the micro-polyphony of his earlier works to generate a harmonic continuum, modulating via constantly evolving polyphonic detail. The intensity of the onward flow was powerfully realised in a performance that maximised timbral contrasts and dynamic shading, with the acoustic perspective of Symphony Hall extended by having the doors to the echo chambers wide open.
Two days earlier, the late Franco Donatonis Esa In Cauda V (2000) had proved an inspired swansong a scherzo of deceptive rhythmic uniformity, in which instruments mesh in architectonic layers which never quite integrate. This gulf between expectation and reality informs all aspects of the piece, which employs initially unremarkable motivic fragments in a variety of unexpected contexts and with exhilarating dynamism.
If Donatonis music can be teasing in its abstraction, that of Maurizio Kagel is often provocative in its theatricality. However, Double Sextet (2001) continues the line of (more or less) abstract chamber works on which he embarked in the early 1980s. If there is a theatrical element, it lies in the registral gulf between high and low instruments that permeates not only the sound but also the rhythmic and expressive development of this substantial yet tautly argued work. And, whatever the element of unpredictability emerging as the music unfolds, the overall journey is a purposeful and satisfying one especially given the unassuming virtuosity of BCMGs performance.
Music by two composers from a younger generation rounded out the event. Philippe Schoeller is an unfamiliar name on this side of the Channel Totems (2000) proved a striking introduction to his work. Somewhere between a latter-day Five Orchestral Pieces (Schoenberg) and an orchestral concerto of such piquant understatement as Dutilleux might conceive, the phenomenological titles confirm the weight of implication condensed into each movement; while the satisfying formal balance suggests a concern for proportion which goes beyond mere textural or dynamic contrasts.
Equally impressive, in its more rebarbative way, was the inventiveness of Hanspeter Kyburzs Noesis (2001). This veritable concerto for orchestra is in three clearly delineated sections: a driving if non-cumulative opening; a restless central span irrupting in a sequence of jagged outbursts; and a rondo-like alternation between toccata and chorale ideas. The accumulated energy here is cut short by a percussive coda, clinching in expression but formally inconclusive, to which the composer intends to add a further section! Apparently given on just one rehearsal at its Lucerne premiere, the piece was projected in confident terms a tribute to Oramo and the CBSO at the end of a demanding four days.
Indeed, the whole festival was a triumph of how to put on an event of such artistic integrity and match it with playing which was always committed and frequently inspired. Few orchestras would have dared take on this much unfamiliar music, presenting it in a way that tangibly enticed the audience into listening. Indeed, the small but consistent attendance at the Symphony Hall concerts was justified by a quality of listening far higher than the passive disinterest which too often meets contemporary works, when unimaginatively placed in the context of standard repertoire.
At the time of writing, Birmingham has learned that it will not be the European Capital of Culture for 2008. A pity, but this should not detract in any way from the all-round vision shown in putting-on Floof!: a celebration of new music that should, and needs to, happen again soon.
- Concerts recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in Hear and Now (Saturday late-evenings)