Movement for 10 Musicians [London premiere]
Candlebird [London Sinfonietta commission: World premiere]
Bone Machine [Sinfonietta Short: World premiere]
Six Symmetries [UK premiere]
Night Rides [London Sinfonietta commission: World premiere]
Leigh Melrose (baritone)
Nicholas Collon [Suckling; Harrison; Matthews]
Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sunday, May 29, 2011
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It wasn’t clear what the Pavilions were, but they belonged to the London Sinfonietta in a long and wide-ranging programme given in the forward-looking spirit of the Festival of Britain, its 60th-anniversary being this month.
Christopher Fox’s KK (2002), for the unlikely combination of alto saxophone and cowbells, opened the concert in upbeat style, yet even over eight minutes (the programme suggested 12) there was restriction to both palette and ideas, Mahler having exhausted the possibilities of this particular percussion more than a century ago. There was though sterling advocacy from Simon Haram (sax) and David Hockings, which was typical of the commitment that shone from every musician in each piece played. Discrepancies between printed and real timings were worrying, though, especially in pieces that have notched up a few years’ existence and previous performances, Fox’s being just the first example of this concert.
Laurence Crane’s Movement for 10 Musicians (2003) is a dance piece, to choreography by Bruno Listopad, and is now outed as a concert work. Scored for flute/piccolo/alto flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, electronic organ, marimba and vibraphone, Crane’s title of Movement is presumably a play on words given the ballet aspect, yet as a stand-alone aural experience it tries one’s patience through the repetition of simple if carefully crafted chords, which here might have benefitted from a conductor for greater exactness and who might have deemed that the electronic organ (in reality a keyboard that can masquerade as one) seemed too loud. Otherwise Crane’s Feldmanesque leanings – slow-slow unfolding, silence as important as sound, pastoral peacefulness, even a coolness that suggested a kinship with Miles Davis (not someone often on this reviewer’s radar it must be said) – have attractions that could be judged intoxicating or mind-numbing, and all stations in between, yet when the same aspects come around too often then 17 minutes can seem rather longer and not helped by the QEH’s sound system issuing hiss, a ‘white’ if discreet intrusion all evening, presumably a consequence of the loudspeakers being kept ‘live’ for Ian McKellen’s announcement of house rules.
Also not sustaining its length was Bryn Harrison’s Six Symmetries (2004), the programme wildly out with its 15 minutes advice (even circa) for something that lasted, here, 26. Harrison’s piece(s) – scored for two flutes/alto flutes, oboe/cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone/tenor saxophone, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, two violins, viola, two cellos and double bass – has a painterly influence, the artistry of Bridget Riley, and began promisingly with an intriguing web of sound, a glowing chord (somewhat late-19th-century Austro-German in effect) acting as an idée fixe, the multi-layered organisation compelling in its disharmony and staggered rhythms producing clusters of chords and tints. But endearment faded bit by bit as similar procedures were reiterated and became reminiscent of 1960s’ improvisation, leaving the very real feeling that Schoenberg (himself a painter) had been there already, his timbral and textural games found (economically) in ‘Farben (Summer Morning by a Lake: Chord-Colours)’, the third of the Opus 16 Five Orchestral Pieces.
If these works failed to stimulate across their whole, then the other three were far more successful and, in Philip Cashian’s case, not because of brevity, his 110-second Bone Machine (2009, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano), which, given its length and modest forces, seems to have been hanging around awhile as a Sinfonietta Short, proved engaging in its lilt, syncopation, wit and agreeable patterns.
Martin Suckling’s Candlebird (2011), settings of an original verse by Don Paterson together with that poet’s “versioning” of texts by Robert Desnos, Antonio Machado and Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf, was constantly compelling over its 25 minutes (just a little longer than anticipated), gratefully set for the words and for the voice, and imaginatively scored utilising bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, two each of violins, violas and cellos, double bass, harp and percussion. The opening setting ‘The Landscape’ (Desnos) is enticingly lyrical, the singer required to speak as well – Leigh Melrose a model of enunciation just as he was an unfailingly communicative, warm-toned and word-investing singer, the master of every demand placed upon him – atmospheric, beautiful, rather Brittenesque, perched somewhere between Serenade (for tenor, horn and strings) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Sky Song’ (also Desnos) enjoys rapturous paragraphs, to be then contrasted with the angular and incident-packed ‘Motive’ (the Paterson original) and the exuberant, much-fragranced dance of ‘The Wind’ (Machado). Finally ‘Candlebird’ itself and its manifold beauties and rich divisi (Tippettian) strings, the singer reaching an intensity worthy of a muezzin before the frozen, strings now unanimous, conclusion. Maybe Suckling takes a little too long in each poem to set what are a few paragraphs, but such expansion is also captivating and exhilarating in a cycle that has the potential for longevity.
Similarly long-term is Colin Matthews’s Night Rides (2011), its title close to Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise (as Matthews acknowledges) and with similar “galloping” rhythms. Matthews’s glinting soundworld (including a digital piano and two alto flutes) is supported by pungent woodwinds (two bass clarinets part of the scene) and in the passages of craggy stillness (offsetting purposeful impetus) Pierre Boulez-like timbres seemed to enter, if peripherally, into the equation. Originally Matthews had a sunset element in his title, but suppressed it, so the winding-down of the coda may equate to such an image; this following much scintillation, a flugelhorn and soprano saxophone imbibing the listener with their distinctive tones. Night Rides is a rewarding 13 minutes’ worth.
As well as all the music enjoying the Sinfonietta players skills and devotion, in the three works he directed, Nicholas Collon, recently appointed as Assistant Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, impressed not only with his command of the pieces and his ability to obtain assured performances, for he also suggested that he was really enjoying what he was doing, his infectious enthusiasm a prime mover in the evening’s success of displaying the eclecticism of British music during the last decade.