Music of Today

Don’t just chuck everything away [World premiere]

Sarah Leonard (soprano)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Paul Watkins

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 February, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This latest “Music of Today” offering brought together scrupulously imagined pieces by three British composers, all of whom came along to talk with MOT Artistic Director Julian Anderson. He was in somewhat laconic form as he probed for responses. It was good to hear the three composers agree that creators shouldn’t second-guess an audience. The maxim has to be, write what you want to, not what you think you should.

MOT, now in its 12th season (I think), is a free and informal pre-concert event that is an excellent way to discover contemporary music, something new. One moan: not for the first time, the microphones used for the pre-music discussion were left switched on and resulted in quite audible hiss emanating from the above-stage loudspeakers.

Of the pieces, Jonathan Cole’s Caught (1998) is a 6-minute ‘chord study’ that consistently beguiles the ear with its nocturnal lyricism and the imaginative textures that Cole conjures from piano, viola, cello, flute, clarinet and vibraphone. The listener is led naturally to what seems the piece’s inevitable place of rest.

Probably best known as a pianist championing unusual repertoire (not least Sorabji’s four-hour-plus Opus Clavicembalisticum), Jonathan Powell’s 8-minute setting (from 2000) of Akhmatova and Kuzmin (for soprano, piano and cello) was welcome for broadening one’s knowledge of Powell. The Russian language and Powell’s use of cello rather suggested Shostakovich and Rostropovich, although, in reality, the musical expression, although intense and desolate, proved rather more decorative than the Russian composer’s. With the composer himself directing from the piano, Sarah Leonard moulded her phrases with meaning, and although cellist David Cohen was an obviously eloquent contributor, he was also reticent enough to be nearly inaudible at times. (Not a call for amplification … let ENO be alone on this slippery slope!)

James Olsen, the youngest composer here (he was born in 1982, Cole in 1970, Powell in 1969), also provided the longest piece. “Don’t just chuck everything away” lasts for 12 minutes and is to Olsen’s own text, one that he compiled from German magazine adverts and which he has translated into English. The work is a tour de force for the soprano, and Sarah Leonard seemed just about faultless, and although Olsen uses his septet of violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon with wit and inventiveness, there is more than a feel of the music being as second-hand as the for-sale items, a transcription rather like those of the Second Viennese School. The result, although likeable, is too reliant on sounding like Berg, with echoes of Richard Strauss and Mahler. The work, hardly a “song” (to quote the composer), is something of a scena, not especially dramatic but certainly with a sense of theatre.

Paul Watkins led the Cole and Olsen pieces with unobtrusive authority and the Philharmonia members played with customary expertise and commitment. The next MOT, on 5 April, features the German composer Matthias Pintscher.

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