On 25 November 2005, the BBC Philharmonic under the direction of James MacMillan gave a concert of four new works by four young composers in the Studio 7 Concert Hall for future broadcast. The concert was given in association with the SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music).
James MacMillan introduced each of the composers and gave them a brief opportunity to expand upon their programme notes which helped the modest audience of about 100 to understand the pieces.
“Six Pieces” by Jordan Hunt was written originally as six separate movements based on the same Chaconne. They were then ‘spliced and re-ordered with a certain amount of serendipity’. The thinking behind this was to create one movement assembled from the fragments like a film put together in the editing stage.
The idea is intriguing, however for this listener the individual movements which made up this collage did not appear to have an individual enough character so that one felt that the splicing was being taken from a different camera angle. The piece was well written and the construction was sound, but the sum of the parts lacked sufficient audible individuality, either in orchestral sound or tempi for the original movements to make it work. I did not make a note of how long the piece lasted, but it struck me as overlong. Having been negative, I am sure that the basic idea could be better presented with more contrasting music.
The second piece was “Illumination” by Fung Lam. Here I must state a bias, I already know him and I went to the concert specifically to hear his piece. He also sent me the score, which gave me a head start. Although he is not a religious person (his words), he was trying to convey the sense of achieving enlightenment, an aim which succeeded. The opening reminded me of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” or “Lontano”. This soon takes on a life of its own leaving the unconscious model behind. Glissandi and colouration from the mainly tuned percussion and rhythmic repeated notes built up to a magnificent climax. The music shimmered and a sense of enlightenment arrived in a state of ecstatic serenity as the strings and flutes ascended through their registers.
The intensity and relentlessness of “Illumination” was followed by “Ausland” by Ed Bennett. This too was relentless as it built up with an inevitability achieved in the climax and resolution. In its construction this was an ‘old fashioned’ piece, but the language was intelligible. Stabbing brass interrupted the flow. The piece as it built up put me in mind of Birtwistle’s “The Triumph of Time”. There is very little of detail to recount as the entire piece was one large sweep, organic. The closing was reminiscent of the technique of Davies, another Mancunian composer. All in all, this was probably the most satisfying piece.
Finally, Philip Venables’ “Arc” was performed. A magnificent finish to a well constructed concert. Various solo instruments surface and subside into the orchestral texture, starting with the viola. He used the orchestra effectively, though there were times when the winds could have been more clearly audible. Although Bennett said the starting point for his piece was visual, ‘Riley, Pollock and de Kooning’, “Arc” conjured up images in my imagination of bubbling hot springs or lava. He could be another excellent art composer to transfer his musicianship to writing soundtracks, not unlike Glass in the ‘skatsi’ films.
The orchestra played commendably as one would expect. A few bumpy moments happened, but this is pardonable given the four different new pieces they were called upon to perform, and probably without sufficient rehearsal time to iron out all the wrinkles. Although an orchestra is an ensemble it is fair to single out some for particular mention, the percussion particularly in Fung Lam’s “Illumination”, the solo viola (Steven Burnard) in Philip Venables’ “Arc” and the brass in Ed Bennett’s “Ausland”.
MacMillan directed each work sympathetically, with the kind of understanding and insight that only a composer can bring to the works of others.
The BBC and the SPNM should both be congratulated on such an excellent event. It shows what can happen when a public service broadcaster and a single minded organisation can achieve together.
The memory I have taken with me from the concert was of four young and able composers, each of them writing convincingly in a different way for the orchestra. But the most important feature of the evening was the music was written with full knowledge that the twentieth century had happened. Each composer has moved into his own world, looking for his originality, his understanding, and with composers like these the future for art music is secure.
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