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Seen and Heard Festival Review


Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2004 reviewed by John Warnaby


The 2004 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival may not have produced any outstanding new works, but it showed how a number of countries are taking recent British music seriously. Ensembles from Austria, Germany, Holland and Norway included new British music in their programmes, while Rebecca Saunders and Richard Ayres – both featured composers – have developed their careers in Germany and Holland, respectively.


The first weekend opened with a concert given by Klangforum Wien in conjunction with the China Found Music Workshop Taipei, an ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments. Bernhard Lang’s dw  13 - the Lotus Pond – was the most ambitious item, but James Clarke’s Landschaft mit Glockenturm II and Tung Chao-Ming’s X, in which the conductor, Juerg Wyttenbach, vocalised enthusiastically, should also be mentioned.


There was also an exchange between Eastern and Western music two days later, when the jazz singer, Dhafer Youssef, appeared with his group of Norwegian musicians in a programme combining improvisation, electronics and Arabic lyricism. There was the customary problem of amplification, plus the usual assortment of electronics, but this could have been worse, and ultimately did not detract from Youssef’s individual approach to jazz.


Three Norwegian ensembles appeared during the first half of the Festival, beginning within the first morning concert, given by the Oslo Sinfonietta, conducted by Christian Eggen. The main work was Sam Hayden’s Emergence, for solo accordion, ensemble and electronics, which was not entirely successful, owing to a lack of contrast between the seven sections. Perhaps a less complex setup would enable Hayden’s personality to emerge more clearly.


The trio, Poing, comprising accordion, saxophone, double-bass and electronics, focused on Norwegian composers. There were two pieces by Maja Ratkje, of which Essential Extension was the more successful. The percussion group, SISU, proved equally popular, not least with a large number of school children, who had participated in one of the Festival’s music education projects. However, the repertoire was distinctly unmemorable, with the exception of Xenakis’ Okho.


The two events involving the Diotima String Quartet were among the highlights of the 2004 Huddersfield Festival. Together with Alan Hacker, bassett clarinet and Music Director, they carried much of the burden of Harrison Birtwistle’s latest music theatre creation, Io Passion, in the production by Aldeburgh Almeida Opera, also involving five singers, besides exploring the interaction between a man and a woman in two relationships from the ancient past and the present. Birtwistle emphasized the extent to which routine and ritual overlap. Both played a role in developing the intense concentration which characterised the score.


In comparison, Nigel Osborne’s The Piano Tuner, presented by Music Theatre Wales, was distinctly conventional, and could be regarded as a typical well-made chamber opera. It is good that Osborne has resumed large scale composition after many years, and The Piano Tuner relates an intriguing tale associated with 19th century British colonisation; but the opera was rather slow, and the music lacked genuine originality.


The Diotima String Quartet’s other contribution was a recital in which they focussed on repertoire usually linked with the Arditti Quartet. They demonstrated the same technical prowess, and a similar commitment to a modernist outlook. Hanspeter Kyburz’ String Quartet was one of his most convincing scores, while the performance of Luigi Nono’s Fragmente -  Stille, an Diotima achieved the degree of concentration demanded by the composer.


The Smith Quartet offered a very different repertoire in their two concerts, including three of Kevin Volans’ nine string quartets, and two by Howard Skempton. Volans’ Second Quartet, Hunting: Gathering, was slightly superior to the other works, but is unlikely to rival Steve Reich’s Different Trains as a minimalist ‘classic’.


More obvious classics from the 1960’s made up the three works of Psappha’s 70th birthday tribute to Peter Maxwell Davies. The performances of Missa super l’Homme Armé and Vesalii Icones captured the spirit of the original Fires of London interpretations, though some regarded the staging of the latter as less provocative than earlier productions. The performance of  Fantasia on a Ground and Two Pavans was not as convincing as the Fires of London version. A selection of Maxwell Davies’ slighter instrumental pieces were interspersed with examples of recent Japanese music in a late-night recital by Okeanos.


The second half of the Festival was largely dominated by ensembles from Germany, Holland and Italy. Both Ensemble Alter Ego and Contempoartensemble from Italy featured the music of Sciarrino. The former concentrated on shorter items, which were subsequently scanned, with considerable subtlety by Scanner, alias Robin Rimbaud. The latter included Sciarrino’s Aspern Suite, for soprano and ensemble, based on the novel of Henry James, which proved one of the highlights of the Festival.


There was a considerable emphasis on the music of the Dutch composer, Richard Rijnvos, involving both the Ives and Asko Ensembles. An enlarged version of the former devoted their main concert to the British premiere of Block Beuys, Rijnvos’ magnum opus to date, though his penchant for extended cycled may mean its eclipse by even larger projects. Rijnvos was inspired by the installation in the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt known as Block Beuys which consists of about 270 objects arranged in 7 rooms of varying sizes. The piece is a monumental construction in which the seven spaces of Beuys’ original conception have been condensed into four movements, each lasting about 20 minutes. The overall impression was somewhat dour, but the last two movements were livelier than their predecessors. Ultimately, Rijnvos’ half-hour mappamondo, presented in a late-night concert by the Asko Ensemble, proved more approachable without sacrificing the earlier work’s monumentality.


The Ives Ensemble also offered a varied lunchtime programme. Laurence  Crane may be regarded as part of either the English experimental, or English eccentric tradition. Either way, his Movement for 10 Musicians gave listeners a glimpse of a rather unique sound-world. Yet it was no match for Carola Bauckholt’s Treibstoff, with its characteristic humour, or Luc Ferrari’s A la Recherche du Rhythme Perdu, calling for an improvising pianist and percussionist.


In fact, the lunchtime concerts included some enterprising events. The programme featuring COMA – Contemporary Music-making for Amateurs – demonstrated a widespread interest among composers in writing music for amateur performers. Some of the commissioned pieces failed to materialise, suggesting that not every composer found it easy to tailor their compositions for non-professionals, but pieces by Diana Burrell, Michael Finnissy, Jonathan Harvey etc, in a variety of styles, were enthusiastically played and thoroughly appreciated. Another concert introduced the young British-Belgian group, Plus Minus, in the world premiere of James Saunders’ latest number piece, together with recent items from Bryn Harrison and Richard Ayres.


The Artistic Director of Plus Minus is Joanna Bailie, who had a new piece performed by the German Ensemble, musikFabrik. Otherwise they concentrated on works by Rebecca Saunders and Richard Ayres in their two programmes. The first, which was far more rewarding, involved the whole ensemble, the second was limited to a few soloists.


Quartet, for small mixed ensemble, and dichroic 17, for larger forces, are among Rebecca Saunders’ finest pieces, especially when played with such authority. They proclaimed a modernist sensibility, the uncompromising character of the music having been influenced by living in Germany. Choler, for two pianos, appeared in the recital by Rolf Hind and Nicolas Hodges. There was little doubt about Saunders’ creative identity, but the piece proved the least impressive of the five items on the programme. The performance of James Dillon’s black/nebulae enhanced its reputation, not least because it successfully withstood a very different interpretation from an earlier Huddersfield Festival. Michael Finnissy’s Wild Flowers moved inexorably from a quiet opening to a rousing conclusion; while Per Norgard’s Unendlicher Empfang and Beat Furrer’s und irgendwo fern, sehr fern … were typical of recent additions to the two-piano repertoire.


Rebecca Saunders was also represented in the concert by Ensemble Recherche, but neither the underside of green, nor duo III could match Georg Friedrich Haas’ brief contribution to the In Nomine Broken Consort Book, and especially the recent tria ex uno, based on Josquin’s Missa l’homme armé super voces musicales. It is also clearly related to Haas’ larger orchestral scores, such as In Vain, or the Cello Concerto.


Richard Ayres is an enigma. He has gradually abandoned a linear view of history, enabling him to use the entire corpus of music which is performed in our time as a compositional resource. Likewise, he is prepared to incorporate other sounds which appeal to him. The results are unpredictable. The music is frequently dominated by consonant harmony, but while tonality is suggested, the context is usually unconventional. Yet there are exceptions, where the composer introduces elementary functional harmony.


No. 31 (NONcerto for Trumpet) for trumpet and ensemble was a case in point, and musikFabrik’s live performance made a greater impact than their recording. The outer movements were essentially humorous, with their clichés, and surprising juxtapositions of familiar gestures. The simple elegy of Alfred Schnittke, which formed the central section, was undoubtedly sincere, but fitted uneasily into such a context.


It was a bold move to devote the final concert in the Town Hall to two works by Richard Ayres, just as it had been to present Block Beuys at the same venue. Both No. 36 (NONcerto for horn) for horn and large ensemble, and No. 33 (Valentine Tregashian Considers…) were more ambitious than the trumpet NONcerto, and raised similar problems of interpretation; but neither was necessarily as successful. On one level, Ayres’ scores could easily be characterised as eccentric and ephemeral, yet the suspicion persists that they may embody deeper meanings.


Neither the obvious theatricality of the horn soloist running back and forth in an attempt to imitate an echo effect, nor the inconsequential humour of Valentine Tregashian Considers… could sustain either work, but there is little doubt that both scores made a considerable impression. We know that Ayres’ creativity is partly inspired by his disregard for the undue seriousness of new music and the cult of originality with which it is associated; but its power to compel and sustain attention from an audience almost entirely unfamiliar with his unique style remains a mystery.



Further aspects of Ayres’ creative personality may be revealed when Almeida Opera introduce his first stage work next summer. Meanwhile, the organisers of the Huddersfield Festival are to be applauded for their adventurous programming at a time when many would attempt to attract a wider audience for new music by dumbing down. As in previous years, the 2004 Huddersfield Festival has played host to many works that would otherwise not be available in this country. Hear and Now will ensure that many of these pieces receive even wider coverage, and a few will eventually reach London audiences. In short, the Huddersfield Festival plays a vital role in setting the standard for the appreciation of new music in Great Britain, and it is the duty of such funding organisations as the Arts Council of England to provide the utmost support.



John Warnaby






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