Tributes for Tony [all world premieres]

Nicola LeFanu & David Lumsdaine
Night Song with Frogs [cimbalom]
Ross Edwards
Chirrup [descant recorder]
John Alexander
Postcard from Tanglewood [double bass]
Alexander Goehr
A’s and G’s [soprano saxophone]
Anthony Payne
Conundrum [cello]
Janice Misurell-Mitchell
Omaggio a(n) Tony [soprano]
Colin Matthews
Fanfare for Tony [viola]
Simon Holt
brief candles [clarinet]
Martin Butler
Hunding [horn]
Peter Maxwell Davies
Judas Mercator [trombone]
Harrison Birtwistle
Gilbert Ground [clarinet, soprano sax, horn, viola, cello]
David Lumsdaine
Serenade [recorded soundscape]

Anthony Gilbert
Elegy [1961, piano solo]
Long White Moonlight [1980, soprano and electric double bass]
Tinos [2004, soprano, clarinet and vibraphone; world premiere]
O’Grady Music [1971, clarinet, cello and toy instruments]
String Quartet No.3 ‘super hoqueto David’ [1987]
Spell Respell [1968, electric basset clarinet and piano
Igórochki [1992, recorders, percussion, cimbalom, guitar and string quartet] *

Marie Vassiliou (soprano)

Julien Feltrin (recorders)

Quentin Poole *
Humour in contemporary music is an elusive creature. Often thought a casualty of the avant-garde’s high-minded seriousness, it has also fallen on the wrong side of a supposed antinomy between art music and popular music (‘culture’ versus ‘entertainment’). But in relation to ‘the great tradition’ of Western classical music, the new at least has variety on its side. Beethoven couldn’t have made an operatic overture out of doorbells (as Ligeti does in Le grand macabre). At least since Debussy and probably since Berlioz, it has been possible to predicate greatness on a stance of marginality – eccentricity of harmony, form, and not least of instrumentation. And it’s in this realm of the rich and strange that rarefied beauty and offbeat humour can turn out to be surprising bedfellows.
If it was not for this history, it might seem curious that either quality should appear in a composer in whom the will to structure is markedly greater than the will to express. Cue Anthony Gilbert – whose new accordion piece Rose luisante at the Park Lane Group week of concerts in January was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful things I have heard this year – and behold a contemporary archetype: a composer with a predilection for unusual and striking timbres and a nice line in witty titles (Six of the Bestiary, Nine or Ten Osannas).
Gilbert himself moved to Manchester in the early 1970s, and began to find a more individual voice at the same time as establishing a successful composition department at the Royal Northern College of Music. Indeed, the most successful of the ‘Tributes for Tony’ premiered here were from younger composers – some, like Simon Holt, former students of this much-respected teacher – and other compositional ‘outsiders’.
Recognising and valuing a composer’s voice can be a difficult exercise, especially in the case of music as neglected as much as this. With the sixties apprenticeship past, it’s already hard to identify a close British parallel to the anarchic antics of O’Grady Music (1971). As for the last twenty-five to thirty years, it’s clear that the positive identity of Gilbert’s music stems at least in part from what it rejects: like Davies and Birtwistle (Goehr less so, though his teacher Messiaen is the clearest precedent for these tendencies), but with wholly individual results, looking back to medieval music and outwards to Eastern traditions.
In Gilbert’s case an increasing absorption in Australian nature and culture has also yielded an alignment with David Lumsdaine, fellow-explorer of the terrain of Australian birdsong and soundscapes. The engagement with Indian classical music and art produced sympathetic resonance for a nascent interest in temporal structures which circle around a gradually revealed essence (in Western terms, comparable to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘inscape’) rather than progressing towards a quasi-Beethovenian goal. Again, the modern is pitted against the mainstream Western tradition.
By the time of the Machaut-based Third String Quartet, we find Gilbert producing something original and distinctive from the medieval influence, too: a taut, seven-minute rethinking of Western art music’s most hallowed instrumental line-up as a breathlessly hocketing hurdy-gurdy band, tonal refinement cast aside and two-hundred-plus years of musical history bypassed.
But after all that, Gilbert is finally a curiously approachable enigma, if indeed the enigma isn’t in the very approachability. Tonal/modal echoes and elements of almost minimalist rhythmic repetition pervade works of the 1990s such as Igórochki, but in contexts so unexpected it takes some time to register their presence. This utterly charming little recorder concerto ended the evening on an absolute high, with pied piper Julien Feltrin the unassuming star of the evening. But as the notes faded, one might have begun to wonder what tied all these diverse inspirations together.
A substantial pageant nonetheless, the event left an impression due in no small measure to intelligent, thoughtful programming and strongly characterised and convincing performances from all the instrumentalists concerned of some demanding music. This kind of hard work and care over presentation really does pay off. Soprano Marie Vassiliou drew an eager audience into two vocal works that, again, neatly showed the stylistic changes wrought in Gilbert’s music by twenty-five years of passing time. Julien Feltrin, standing in at short notice, could not have been a better advocate for his instrument or this composer’s endlessly inventive writing for it. Everyone else on the platform deserves equally high praise.


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