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Floof! A celebration of new music (CT)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham, Saturday 31st May

Meet the Composer and Concert

Julian Anderson, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Simon Holt, Mauricio Kagel

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Ė Sakari Oramo and Esa- Pekka Salonen, Rolf Hind (piano) Anu Komsi (soprano)

It is common place to expect a degree of self congratulation by the organisers of pretty much any contemporary music festival these days, a veiled acknowledgement of an achievement often all too sadly pulled off against the odds of audience attendance and financial backing. It was perhaps no surprise then that Floof!ís Saturday afternoon "meet the composer" platform, chaired by Radio Three controller Roger Wright, commenced in just this way. Yet on this occasion his comments were surely justified, a provincial festival drawing together some of the worldís leading compositional talent and masterminded by Sakari Oramo with, I suspect, a liberal dose of assistance from CBSO composer in association, Julian Anderson. Even more extraordinary, a festival that spanned four days with three concerts by the CBSO themselves in Symphony Hall and one in the nearby CBSO centre by BCMG. A reason for self congratulation indeed.

The composerís forum drew together Anderson, Holt, Lindberg and Salonen together with Jonathan Harvey and Frenchman Philippe Schoeller, all of whom were represented by performances during the festival. It takes considerable skill by the chairman to steer a forum such as this through a series of interesting and useful topics. All too often round the table sessions can descend into utter monotony as a result of mundane subject matter, apparently disinterested composers, equally uninvolved audiences or (total disaster!) all three. Fortunately Roger Wright put up a manful performance aided by an audience that were reasonably keen to question and composers who ranged from typically forthright in Salonen, to informative and interesting in Lindberg and Anderson, to quietly authoritative in Harvey and quiet altogether in Holt who made little contribution but probably did himself little harm in a self effacing kind of way.

The discussion ranged from the old chestnuts of programming and audience statistics (nothing new there) through the lack of female representation on the panel, a legitimate point raised by a female composition student from Birmingham University and taking in performance funding and composerís financial considerations stemming from commissions along the way. What failed to materialise was any serious individual comment from the composers about the music itself. This was something of a shame for Salonen, Lindberg, and Anderson particularly are more than articulate when prompted. There was, nevertheless, plenty to occupy around an hour and a quarter of conversation without any awkward silences!

The Saturday evening concert centred on four of the composers present, together with Argentinean born Mauricio Kagel. The afternoon conversation had, at one point, veered towards the question of pre-concert talks and composer introductions and here the audience were lucky to have input from all of the composers represented with the exception of Kagel, whose work was openly discussed by Anderson and Oramo. It was Anderson who took to the stage first to discuss his Alhambra Fantasy giving an articulate and amusing account of the work coupled with his admission that he had actually never been to the Alhambra Palace before or since. The work is a natural concert opener, exuberant, energetic and teeming with invention. Interestingly Anderson mentioned that the work was an attempt to compose entirely intuitively, working from bar to bar with no preconceived structure in mind yet in performance the work binds together impressively with snatches of melody recurring throughout the opening section before a quite magical transformation into the atmospheric middle section. Oramo conducted BCMG with an energy entirely appropriate to the work. Superbly coloured, imaginative and virtuosic Alhambra Fantasy confirms yet again Andersonís unquestionable status as one of our leading younger generation talents.

Magnus Lindbergís Twine for solo piano was perhaps the most difficult of all of the eveningís pieces to access on a first hearing. Rolf Hind gave a performance of impressive control and dynamic sensitivity, allowing the silences around which the piano lines "entwined" themselves to speak with telling effect. Lindberg explained beforehand that Twine, written in 1988 following a period of serious illness in hospital, was an important piece in the future development of his music, although to place it in its true context alongside the major orchestral canvasses that followed would take serious academic study I suspect.

There must have been considerable interest as to where Esa-Pekka Salonen found the title of his work, Floof! (subtitled Songs of a Homeostatic Homer). The answer lies in the book The Cyberiad by the Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem and revolves around manís invention of a poetry machine. The composer gave an illuminating, somewhat tongue in cheek introduction to a work that proved witty yet perhaps the most overtly avant-garde piece of the night, scored for coloratura soprano and an ensemble of clarinet/contrabass clarinet, cello, piano, synthesiser and percussion. Salonen draws an extraordinary range of effects from the group but even more so from the soprano, Anu Komsi (Oramuís wife, by coincidence) who coughs, splutters, expostulates and grunts her way through the machineís attempts to make sense of its instructions. Without question, Komsi was the star here, singing a work of considerable complexity from memory with the utmost confidence and some delightful facial expressions.

Simon Holtís eco-pavan of 1998 is essentially a study in "echoing", the unlikely but effective ensemble of bass flute, heckelphone, harp, cimbalom and percussion, shadowing the material of the solo piano part, played with characteristic sensitivity by Rolf Hind. The result is perhaps not entirely conventional in terms of what one would expect from Holt but proved memorably atmospheric, tantalising the ear with crystalline colour and delicate, fragile textures.

Completed in 2001, Mauricio Kagelís Double Sextet is a far cry from his trademark music theatre works, being striking in both its originality of invention and sound. The scoring for six woodwinds and six strings omits clarinets and violas and creates an ensemble very much of Kagelís imagination in which he employs a strict economy of means utilising only two metres throughout, 2/4 and 3/8, each of which are allotted different musical material. Parts of the work are propelled by ostinato like rhythmic figures whilst the language is perhaps closest to the neo-classical and in particular Stravinsky. As interesting as parts of it were, there was a feeling that the economy of means was stretched a little far by its twenty-five minute length.

Concerts outside London featuring the kind of diversity of contemporary music on offer here are still all too rare and it is to be hoped that Oramoís hint during the afternoon forum that the festival may be repeated in 2005 is allowed to come to fruition.

Christopher Thomas.




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