Music of Today & Future Firsts

Music of Today

Phillip Neil Martin
Standing Water [World premiere]
Lloyd Moore
Three Epigrams of Kathleen Raine [World premiere]
Luke Bedford
Slow Music [World premiere]
Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper

Louise Mott (mezzo-soprano)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Christopher Austin

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Future Firsts

Siegfried Idyll
Frank Martin
Concerto for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion and strings
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [transcribed]
Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9

London Philharmonic’s Future Firsts Ensemble

Purcell Room, London


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 February, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall & Purcell Room, London

This was an unrelated pair of concerts that seemed, however serendipitous, to make an intriguing complement of young composers and young musicians, and found the South Bank Centre’s resident orchestras extending the range.

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s free, no ticket, “Music of Today” series included on this occasion music by British composers, played with conviction by the Philharmonia members under the lucid directions and musical integrity of Christopher Austin.

Standing Water by Phillip Neil Martin (born 1979) made and left a big impression over its 8 minutes of chirruping fragments and rhythmic guile, and the sometimes-apparent influence of Japanese gagaku. The 12-musician ensemble of string quartet, double bass, harp, celesta, piccolo/flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon/contrabassoon and horn – and some effective whistling and, to these ears, a pebbles-in-water effect from a small drum – made for an engaging piece; one, hopefully, to be heard again.

The three composers were present and talked with fellow-composer, Julian Anderson, MOT’s Artistic Director. Lloyd Moore (born 1966) spoke of the difficulty of setting the poetry of Kathleen Raine. Moore’s Epigrams initially evoked the expression and sounds of Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” and Verklärte Nacht, the lyrical vocal line, ably rendered by Louise Mott, very much part of the instrumental ensemble of five each of winds and strings, the music always engrossing and of a larger dimension than the five-minute duration might suggest.

Two pieces by Luke Bedford (born 1978) – roughly 7 minutes each and both scored for string trio, flute, oboe, clarinet, harp and celesta – completed this excellent pre-concert event. Slow Music proved static and pungent with accruing activity. And beginning on the same high G sharp that ends Slow Music, Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper (after Buñuel’s film “The Phantom of Liberty”) came across as intriguing and elusive and, finally, terse and ambiguous.

This crop of fine pieces played to a ‘good house’, so too the “Future Firsts” concert that took place in the Purcell Room concurrent with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Philharmonia in Mozart and Mahler in the QEH.

The London Philharmonic’s “Future Firsts” ensemble is “of outstanding young players preparing for a career in orchestral, chamber or solo performance”. It was an adventurous programme, devised by Scott Stroman, made even more so by the players not being conducted, although Stroman (“Future Firsts” director) had been involved with the preparation. There were times, throughout the evening, when the direct intervention of a conductor was needed; Siegfried Idyll sagged, for example, and the Schoenberg needed more astute balancing and greater clarity of motifs.

Yet, what a confidence builder it must be to have to fend for yourself and make a team effort. And in so many ways these young musicians were very impressive. More attention was needed in matters of intonation and the winds and horns needed to modify the loudest dynamics in the Schoenberg in which the string quartet was sometimes obliterated (Schoenberg’s wind instruments would not have been as powerful as those used today). The heading for the finishing post was rather too hasty and undermined the whole, yet the fiendish difficulties of this music were taken in the players’ stride (without necessarily getting inside it).

The Concerto for seven wind instruments by Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) has a musical concision that emulates Stravinsky and a harmonic process reminding of Hindemith; it’s a work of personality and circumstance (post-war austerity leading to an optimistic flourish). The string ‘orchestra’ was here of 9 players, rather undernourished, but the performance had panache and perception.

The most consistent rendition was of Debussy’s Faune, this transcription for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, percussion (Debussy’s ‘antique cymbals’), string quartet, double bass and piano was supervised by Schoenberg, but the programme note didn’t venture to suggest that the graft was probably that of Hanns Eisler (1898-1962). Flautist Claire Cobley had the presence of mind to wait before launching her expressive, beautifully judged solo, and pianist Keith Ford was a most delicate contributor; just a little more of the harp would have been welcome.

Overall, a little more attention was needed to tonal blends and quality of sound, and more chamber-like interaction; also the loudest dynamics needed reining in (especially in this hall) to avoid harshness and imbalance, but the “Future Firsts” idea is a laudable one and this concert was a fitting tribute to it. Hopefully, like “Music of Today” has become, “Future Firsts” will be a regular event on the concert calendar.

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