London Contemporary Orchestra

Potential Fracture Lines [LCO commission: world premiere]
a second box of brief candles
Assassin Hair [World premiere of Revised Version]

Amy Moore (mezzo-soprano)

Mark Simpson (clarinet)

Members of London Contemporary Orchestra
Hugh Brunt

Reviewed by: David Bignell

Reviewed: 6 September, 2008
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

Amongst London’s thriving new music scene the London Contemporary Orchestra must surely rank as one of the major players, boasting as it does a terrific pool of young talent who ably brought to life two exciting premieres at this concert.

Colin Alexander’s string quartet, Potential Fracture Lines, commissioned by the LCO, is a stunning work, pulsating with a maturity and conviction that belied the composer’s youthfulness. According to Alexander, the piece is “specifically written to stimulate the ear and therefore the mind”. While one might wonder just what the point of a piece not written to stimulate the ear would be, it can’t be denied that the work makes demands on listeners’ minds that the rest of the pieces played here did not.

Although at first the quartet seemed to be mired in the weary round of ‘special effects’ so de rigueur in contemporary music – Alexander having the performers use the instruments in almost every way except the way Mozart would have – it was the work’s structure that grabbed and held the interest, and, for once, to use an analogy from the film world, the special effects actually provided the plot rather than replacing it. Intricately constructed, the piece worked its way through the transformation and development of a number of sound-cells (thirteen according to the programme note, though I’m not sure anyone was counting) and this structure, whilst undoubtedly subtle, was also obvious enough at times to give the listener the comforting knowledge that it was there – the proverbial iceberg, impressive for the ten percent that was visible, but even more impressive for the ninety percent that remained non-discerned, at least on first listening.

The other new work in the programme, a Revised Version of Jonathan Cole’s 2002 BBC commission “Assassin Hair” is vividly colourful compared to the sparsely used tonal palette of Potential Fracture Lines, but colour alone was not sufficient to sustain attention by this point in the evening. Although there were moments of beauty the work failed to connect, the surreal voluptuousness of Bataille’s poetry sadly hampered by a stilted vocal performance and a setting that felt, at times, slavishly literal.

Amy MooreThe work is also over-scored at times, and while Amy Moore may have lacked charisma as a soloist, she nevertheless possessed a lovely tone and fine intonation, and it was a shame that some of this good work was swamped – the opening was particularly problematic, pitting low vocal writing against an energetic fusillade of percussion, which, though competently handled by the excellent Sarah Cresswell, proved to be a rather one-sided battle.

Sandwiched by these two works were a couple of pieces by Simon Holt. a second box of brief candles is a short suite of eight movements for solo clarinet, in which Mark SimpsonMark Simpson. Photograph: BBCdemonstrated absolute mastery over his instrument – a remarkable performance that managed to transcend the slight paucity of variety in the work. Lilith, for eight players, followed, and this is where the goodwill engendered by the excellent first half started to run dry.

Based as it is on the entertaining but thoroughly non-Biblical legend of Adam’s “first wife”, a demon / night-stalking apparition / serpent, the source material is surely dark and fascinating enough to make for an equally interesting piece, but, aside from some occasional lush horn-writing and the odd cathartic moment, the work seemed dull and hackneyed. With a piercingly prominent clarinet part utilising many of the same techniques as ‘brief candles’ this work was insufficiently different in style to either its predecessor or the following “Assassin Hair”; as a result the second half of the concert was disappointingly bland after the invigoration of the first half.

That aside, the performances were of a consistently high standard. Special mention should be made of the string quartet – David Worswick, Tom Hankey, Robert Ames and Oliver Coates, who upheld the tension superbly throughout a thoroughly committed and believable account of Potential Fracture Lines – an excellent performance of a challenging work. Robert Ames deserves special credit for his unswerving professionalism despite apparently finishing with fewer strings than when he started…

All in all this was an enjoyable evening, due mainly to the quality of the performances and Colin Alexander’s contribution. It is encouraging to hear such interesting new work from composers who still have many years of development ahead of them.

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