Sunday, March 28, 2010

Shapes and Music

Shapes and music

Squares - Circles - Labyrinths

Q Club, Birmingham 18th March 2010.


Yet again I find myself leaving London for Birmingham to attend a performance of music by an important twentieth century composer. In 2009 it was mainly the late music of Stravinsky, this year it was principally for a performance of Carré by Stockhausen. Other works in the concert were Allegri's Miserere, Tallis' Spem in alium and Berio's Laborintus 2. The performers were almost exclusively drawn from the university.


The performance took place in the unlikely venue of the Q Club. My only experience of Carré was a recording decades ago and so, relying solely on this distant memory, I was there with no true knowledge of the work. This live performance was a revelation.


The musicians, who were already in place when we entered the arena, were on four raised platforms in each corner for the orchestras and in the gallery were the singers. The audience could stand or sit where they chose. Being tired I sat between group 2 on my left and group 1 on my right and I elected to make this my exclusive position.


What struck me most forcibly about Carré was what a simple piece it was essentially. But simplicity, as in Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, need not mean simplistic.


Notes were passed around the groups and were made clear and audible by the combined conductors, Jonty Harrison, Vic Hoyland, Lee Differ and Scott Wilson. One added bonus to this performance was how the four groups were able to interact. The conductors all sported headphones and listened to a voice counting out the beats. This meant the sound travelled directly into the arena. Although dissonance is a word most people would associate with Stockhausen, and there was naturally enough plenty, a few moments of consonance remain clearly in my memory.


I cannot honestly say whether the performance was accurate or not, as I am ignorant of the written score or many other performances. What I can say is it was a performance that came over with true conviction. This a credit to the conductors and the performers alike.


After a longer than normal interval we regrouped in the gallery for the two a cappella works. The Miserere is not, in all honesty, a highly favoured or respected work for me. Its structure of passing the music between the chorus, chanter and group of soloists is tedious. I am not too much in sympathy with this kind of religious art. However, in the context of the concert it showed that spatial music (the three sets of performers were set well apart, the main body of the chorus in the arena, the solo tenor chanter on a higher level to the audience's right and on the other side of the gallery the four soloists) was by no means a modern concept invented by members in the Darmstadt School. In this concert the Miserere served as a simple musical history lesson.


Next the Tallis, music that is close to my heart and never fails to astound me. The (more than) 40 singers stood in an arc and the magic of the piece began. It never seems to fail to excite me from the first two notes. The memorable high G in the sopranos' music was an earlier example of Stockhausen passing a note between his groups of performers, but used in a totally different manner. Here it is not held but appears frequently. With 40 parts the music is, like the Miserere, static, but again it is static in a different manner. The joy of the polyphony in the Tallis is more readily audible to audiences than is Stockhausen's and works on a simpler level. I don't know if it was the performance or my experience of it but it seemed to finish at a faster tempo than when it began. Whichever is the case, it did not harm the overall effect.


The student musicians were joined by student actors and professional singers for a staged performance of Berio's Laborintus 2. I am not, unlike a composer friend of mine, as enamoured of Berio's work so my comments can be rejected by Berio fans.


It is a more complex piece than any of the the preceding pieces and I did not feel (as did some other members of the audience) that the staging contributed much to the music. My understanding and familiarity with the text is poor and I was not lead into the heart of the piece. Why one of the three excellent soprano soloists left her companions to dance with the narrator and subsequently left him to stand above her fellow performers like a madonna in one of those hideous baroque chapels that mar so many Italian churches is beyond me. I was probably born just a little bit too late to be truly, madly, deeply into 60's psychedelia.


Of the performers in all four works (professionals apart who produced exemplary performances) I have nothing but high praise. I spoke with Vic Hoyland who said he had to take them with him as the two more recent works were alien (I paraphrase our exchange) but come they did. The singers had to produce strange noises in the Stockhausen. Peculiar moans, groans and ululation that are a world away from the "perfect" sounds required for the Allegri and Tallis. Then in the Berio, Italianate bel canto for the small chorus of eight (they are more like a set of less prominent soloists) were required to howl and shout. Although it is always unfair to pick out some performers I must praise the soprano Chiara Lisowski (pure as the soprano soloist in the Miserere and spotted by me as having one hell of a time in Carré) the bass Richard Scott in the more functional bass role in the Miserere but at times almost losing voice control in the Berio which added so much to the performance.


My overall conclusion of the concert is that despite my more unsympathetic attitudes and responses to the Allegri and Berio (I do like Italian music, honest I do!) the concert was an education for me as a listener, some 35 years older than many of the participants, and those involved should ensure they put this performance on their CV and more especially the Stockhausen.


If this has encouraged even a small number of them to take a deeper interest in the modern and modernist music written in the twentieth century, or even come to enjoy it and love it so much as I have, then they have become more enriched.


My contemporaries at conservatoires were not as exposed as these youngsters have been. What they gave their audience on Thursday (the programme was given again on Friday 19th) can never be repaid.


As an aside, Birmingham has been shortlisted as a "City of Culture" for 2013. On this showing and the splendid Igorfest by the CBSO alone they surely must be a front runner. All power to the provinces!

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