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S & H Festival Report:

Huddersfield 2001 by John Warnaby


This was the first year in which the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was not directed by its founder, Richard Steinitz. He has relinquished the position in favour of Susanna Eastburn, and the smooth transition was helped by the fact that he had already planned many of this year's programmes. It is to be hoped Steinitz' influence will continue into the future.

One of the more notable features of this year's Festival was the growth of what might be called the integrated concert, involving the presentation of several works as a single entity. The most obvious instance was the seventy-minute programme of music by Kaija Saariaho, entitled 'From the Grammar of Dreams', after one of the items. Two sopranos, a small ensemble, plus some electroacoustic material were involved in the presentation of extracts from several works, while the composer deployed texts by Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare and others to create, on one level, a wonderfully revealing self-portrait.

The Bent Sorensen portrait concert was also devised as a continuous sequence, but the absence of vocal music resulted in a less personal event. Nevertheless, the series of small scale compositions gave a good impression of the composer's style.

The first half of the Cornelius Cardew tribute also unfolded as a sequence, concentrating on pieces from the early 1960's, in which Cardew experimented with different types of notation, involving varying degrees of improvisation. The second half, based on Schooltime Compositions was more akin to an old-style 'happening', but the performance was rather solemn. Paragraph Six of the Great Learning, designed for both trained and untrained musicians, received a more convincing interpretation, and was enlivened by the subsequent discussion concerning the significance of Cardew's legacy. Howard Skempton and John Tilbury - two of Cardew's closest collaborators expressed different views of his achievement, but if there is such a thing as a 'performing tradition', its spirit was probably more faithfully represented by Tilbury.

The final sequence featured Garth Knox' imaginative 'portrait' of the viola and viola d'amore. Knox has devised a music-theatre work with pre-recorded tape, in which the two instruments acquire memories and begin exploring their repertoires without human intervention. There were few signs of the unconventional techniques Knox has developed to play contemporary works, but his one-man show was certainly entertaining.

Jatekok - Games - might be described as a sequence, but Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag have been performing selections from the collection for such a long time that it has almost become a single entity. The work encompassed a variety of styles, but the Bach transcriptions were the most remarkable aspect by virtue of their contrapuntal clarity.

Kurtag was also featured in a concert involving the Arditti String Quartet and Neue Vokalsolisten, Stuttgart. His First and Third Quartets were performed, and the programme was also scheduled to include Zwiegesprach: a dialogue between string quartet and electronics - his son providing the electroacoustic element. Unfortunately, only the last part was played, amounting to about 15 minutes, but even though the electronics were sometimes too loud for Kurtag's string writing, this was sufficiently intriguing to regret the fact that the opening section has not, and may never be written.

The first half was devoted to three works written for the Neue Vokalsolisten. They were joined by the Arditti Quartet in Hilda Parides' Ccn Silim Tun, and James Dillon's substantial Vapor; while in Olga Neuwirth's Nova Mob, the voices were transformed and projected throughout the hall. Kurtag's Scenes from aationovel also appeared in a Psappha programme, alongside Ligeti's Horn Trio and an unusually convincing interpretation of Maxwell Davies' Image, Reflection, Shadow. The last movement was particularly successful, and was given more weight than in the Fires of London performances.

Other Hungarian composers were also featured in an instrumental programme on the penultimate day of the Festival. They included some of the founders of the New Music Studio, particularly Laszlo Vidovsky, whose Schroeder's Death, for pianist and three 'assistants', created considerable amusement. It was over-long, however, as the joke was obvious halfway through, with more and more keys failing to generate any sound. The most completely satisfying item was Gergely Vajda's Lightshadow - Trembling, for solo clarinet.

The Scandinavian theme was more thoroughly explored during the first weekend. The main focus was on Norway, especially Arne Nordheim, who was the subject of a portrait concert. Pieces were chosen from different stages of his career, including Tenebrae, in a new version, where the solo cellist was supported by a small chamber orchestra, rather than full symphony orchestra. His style has remained consistent throughout his career, and this has not been altered by his frequent use of electronics dating back to his early works. Magic Island, for two singers and ensemble, was a good example of Shakespeare's text prompting him to broaden the dimensions of his sonic vocabulary.

Rolf Wallin and Cecilie Oere represented the younger generation of Norwegian composers; especially the former, two of whose alchemy-inspired ensemble pieces - Boyl and Solve et Coagula - were heard, along with a late-evening presentation of some of his vocal and electronic work. Oere, meanwhile, was represented by her short, but arresting String Quartet, entitled Praesens Subitus.

Besides Bent Sorensen, Denmark was represented by Hans Abrahamsen, who has resumed composition after a decade of silence. His recent Piano Concerto can certainly stand comparison with his earlier Symphony, and Preludes for String Quartet. Likewise, Finland had Magnus Lindberg, in addition to Kaija Saariaho. His Gran Duo concluded the concert by the CBSO, conducted by Knussen, though a projected string quartet did not materialise, and, apparently, may not do so for some time.

Alejandro Vinao's reputation is largely restricted to the electroacoustic domain, but he has been able to apply some of his ideas to compositions where the computer, or electroacoustic enhancements do not disguise the conventional instruments. Phrase and Fiction, with string quartet, or Cuaderno del Ritmo, with ensemble, are good examples, and they share similar preoccupations. On the other hand, in such text-based pieces as Borges you el Espejo, for soprano, or the choral Epitafios, electronics provide the equivalent of instrumental support. Epitafios, particularly, demonstrated the significance of literature as a creative stimulus. It was certainly his most convincing contribution to the Festival.

The three sections from Richard Barrett's large-scale ensemble project, Dark Matter belied the composer's British origins. Even before he went abroad, Barrett's music eschewed innate British conservatism and had absolutely no connection with his native Wales. After settling on the Continent, he evolved a highly personal aesthetic within the Central European tradition and the result was a highly concentrated style, not least in his most ambitious creations. It is to be hoped that the Dark Matter in its complete form will soon reach this country.

The James Wood 'portrait' concert proved a rather varied experience, but at his best, as in the marimba concerto, Venancio Mbande Talking to the Trees, he is capable of writing impressively. Otherwise, the British offerings were disappointing. Diana Burrell's Gold handled the combination of piano and brass ensemble with some imagination, but Philip Cashion's Masque of the Red Death, for clarinet and string quartet was rather bland. Maxwell Davies' Mr Emmet Takes a Walk lacked the intensity of his pioneering approach to music theatre, but most disappointing was the absence of adventure among the younger composers. Neither the concert promoted by the SPationM, nor the evening of short operas produced anything which could be regarded as experimental, let alone ambitious or controversial. The latter, particularly, were thrown into sharp relief by Heiner Goebbels' Hashirigaki and Sciarrino's Lohengrin. In their different ways, they were immensely challenging but equally rewarding, confirming that European music-theatre has moved on a long way since Maxwell Davies raised eyebrows with such scores as Eight Songs for a Mad King in the 1960s. Sciarrino was also featured in a recital of instrumental pieces for piano, flute, violin and viola - all reflecting an extraordinary sonic imagination.

Finally, Klangforum Wien. They only gave one concert, but it was an effective way of drawing this year's Huddersfield Festival to a close. Olga Neuwirth's Hooloomooloo was disappointing, whereas Johannes Maria Staud's A Map is not the Territory showed why he has already gained a considerable reputation among the new generation of Austrian composers. The highlight, however, was Kurtag's Quasi Una Fantasia, closely followed by Friedrich Cerha's Jahr Lang ins UNGEWISSE Hinab.

Like Kurtag, Cerha celebrated his 75th birthday this year, but in this country at least, he has not received the attention he deserves. Yet Cerha's impact on the history of music in the past 50 years has been immense. His ensemble, Die Reihe, was the prototype of such ensembles as Klangforum, and established the repertoire on which they have built. It was therefore appropriate that this year's Festival should conclude with one of his more recent ensemble pieces.

Meanwhile, Susanna Eastburn deserves to be congratulated on an auspicious start as Artistic Director. Many of the events were sold out, thereby confirming that when a festival is well organised, with imaginative programming, there is an enthusiastic audience anxious to learn about the latest developments in new music.

John Warnaby


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