BCMG: Back to the Beginning

Ripples in Spacetime II (2018) [UK premiere]
Ma Xiao-Qing
Back to the Beginning (2020) [World premiere: BCMG Sound Investment commission]
Eccentric Melody (1998)
Capriccio (2017)
Midnight Interludes (2010)
Watermark (2002)
Roddy’s Reel (2009)

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group:
Mark O’Brien, clarinet/bass clarinet
Colette Overdijk, violin
Ulrich Heinen, cello
John Reid, piano

Online broadcast on Sunday 28th February 2021

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 February, 2021
Venue: CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has not been idle over the phases of lockdown, this concert – recorded at CBSO Centre with the musicians (other than clarinettist Mark O’Brien) wearing facemasks – being typical in its juxtaposing new commissions and welcome revisits.

Drawing on cosmic waves as emitted from a pulsar, Ripples in Spacetime II finds Jia Guoping constructing a relatively elaborate piece that emphasises the timbral diversity of its ensemble. Its pitches derived from the acronym CHINA FAST (a radio telescope), then expanded into multi-note groupings which evolve according to a stepwise ascent, this work utilises playing techniques as evoke traditional Chinese instruments in what is an evocative and increasingly capricious interplay between innovation and tradition on conceptual as well as musical levels.

From here to Back to the Beginning saw Collette Overdijk take the stage for this first hearing of a piece by Ma Xiao-Qing, whom BCMG encountered on its Chinese tour during 2019 and commissioned as part of its lockdown series ‘Soliloquys and Dialogues’. Both aspects of this title are present, the soloist active in a speaking and playing capacity (how they came together can be witnessed at https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZOidqoK0ZXg), the outcome an amalgam of technical finesse and alluring spontaneity which does credit to player and composer alike.

Next came two pairs of works by composers who have all been associated with BCMG over its eventful history. Written as a 50th-birthday tribute to Fred Sherry for the 90th of Elliott Carter, Oliver Knussen’s Eccentric Melodyexudes a coursing vitality such as Ulrich Heinen brought out in full. Julian Anderson’s Capriccio is his memorial to Steven Stuckey as also a reminder, with its fine balance between precision and playfulness to which John Reid responded in kind, that this composer was a leading authority on the music of Lutosławski.

One of Charlotte Bray’s most significant scores is her song-cycle Midnight Closes with texts by Thomas Hardy, and Midnight Interludes draws on this in three miniatures that summon a quizzical and even brusque response between clarinet and cello. Rather weightier matters are inferred by John Woolrich’s Watermark, his duet for violin and bass clarinet whose interplay has been likened to ‘‘Planets revolving around the same sun’’ and whose juxtaposing of the same or similar material builds not inconsiderable momentum before its sudden evanescence.

One of BCMG’s final concerts before the pandemic took hold was an 85th birthday concert for Harrison Birtwistle, from which a welcome reprise of Roddy’s Reel ended this afternoon’s programme. A tribute to his neighbour Roddy MacLeod, when the composer resided on the Hebridean island of Raasay, it has the bass clarinet pursuing a lively course through a welter of claps, vocalisms then a final stomp from the audience; all of which were reproduced via a pre-recorded Zoom performance with Malvin Tay securing an (almost) unanimous response.

It certainly made for an engaging conclusion to a recital that lived up to BCMG’s reputation for innovative programming. Hopefully, further events are planned and, if the circumstances are favourable, then audiences may once more have an actual rather than a virtual presence.

This recital can be viewed via https://www.bcmg.org.uk/Event/back-to-the-beginning

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