London Contemporary Orchestra at The Roundhouse

Gabriel Prokofiev
Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra [European premiere]
Electronic Study 1

Joby Burgess (bass drum)

Daniel Pioro (violin), Robert Ames (viola) & Oliver Coates (cello)

London Contemporary Orchestra
Hugh Brunt

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 March, 2012
Venue: The Roundhouse, London

Whatever else, Reverb at the Roundhouse has brought the intriguing aesthetic hybrid that is ‘contemporary classical’ into close and often compelling focus, while there could be no ensemble better suited to such an event than the London Contemporary Orchestra, which took on the main portion of performances.

That said, the overall programme risked being a victim of its own ambition. Doors were open at 7, with the first hour devoted to foyer events comprising a DJ set from Richard Lannoy, after which bass clarinettist Scott Lygate put Johannes Maria Staud’s Black Moon through its ominous paces, then soprano Sarah Dacey tried valiantly to project Kaija Saariaho’s evocative Lonh against a varied coming and going of punters – many of whom seemed unsure where they should be and at what time. Dissolution of boundaries between programmes may well be integral to the Reverb ethos, but it does not always make for attentive listening.

The evening was well advanced when, at around 8, the LCO took the stage for the first of a three-part concert that began with Metastasis (1954) – the earliest of Xenakis’s acknowledged works, whose curving string glissandos and angular interplay of woodwind and brass are wholly characteristic – as is its evolution via sound masses of a greater or lesser density. Hugh Brunt secured a vividly coordinated response from the musicians, though the opening crescendo of activity could have done with a little more definition, while the audience’s rather nonplussed response was surely less to do with the work’s content that the fact it was all over in barely 10 minutes.

After which came the European premiere of the Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra (2011) by Gabriel Prokofiev, whose activities as head of “Nonclassical” have been a notable facet of the London new-music scene over recent years. Most impressive was its inherent subtlety – the bass drum being ingeniously deployed as a percussion section in an orchestra otherwise without. And, while the piece does not entirely justify the almost half-hour span, it does not lack contrast or variety – the several continuous sections ranging from unremitting rhythmic vigour to an eventful stillness in which the composer revealed a keen ear for arresting harmonies and textures. It helped that the redoubtable Joby Burgess dispatched the solo part with evident virtuosity – his contribution ranging from the confrontational to the soulful, as when the bass drum is briefly transformed into a bowed instrument before the final onslaught. An engaging work that deserves revival.

After an interval that featured a further DJ set from Lannoy, the second part consisted of Doghouse (2009) – Jonny Greenwood’s most-recent work as composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra. On the one hand a ‘triple concerto’ for violin, viola and cello, this also amounts to a series of variations on the alluring string phrase heard near the outset – an expressive archetype that is easily assimilated into a range of stylistic contexts (though this is hardly the first time that Delius and Messiaen have been placed in close proximity). Less successful was the maintaining of any real or lasting momentum, with the surges of energy remaining as isolated instances in a piece whose expressive languor hinted at without securing greater emotional intensity. Which is not to say that the LCO’s playing was other than committed, not least Daniel Pioro, Robert Ames and Oliver Coates in their extensive concertante roles, or that the music did not evince a slow-burning eloquence.

After a further interval, the third part opened with Stockhausen’s First Electronic Study (1953) – among the first such pieces to be created out of pure sine tones rather than through electric instruments, though its often-aloof demeanour was most likely lost on an audience many of whom returned late from Prokofiev’s DJ set.

Fortunately the audience had settled by the time of Orion (1979), Claude Vivier’s second and (regrettably) final work for full orchestra which went unheard in the UK until less than two years ago but which is typical of his maturity in its aural translucency and formal discipline – an underlying melody being progressively developed and reprised before emerging as the resplendent apotheosis. The performance, though not without imprecision in intonation, had the measure of a score which – as with almost all of Vivier’s major works – brings its inwardness and immediacy, and its panache and vulnerability, into perfect and highly personal accord.

The foyer events were set to continue for another two hours – including further sets from Lannoy and Prokofiev, and a live one from Burgess – but your reviewer headed home at the end of a protracted yet, for the most part, impressive programme that demonstrated once again the LCO’s strengths in a wide and demanding repertoire.

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