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International Double Reed Society 38thAnnual Conference - Haussman, Matsushita, Riou, Bingham, Weir, Podgaits, Musgrave: Annual Conference -Haussman, Matsushita, Riou, Bingham, Weir, Podgaits, Musgrave: World Premiere Concert, Various Artists, Birmingham Town Hall, 22.7.2009 (CT)

Ben Haussman: Cleaving Time (2009) for oboist and narrator (world premiere)
Nathan Hughes (oboe) TM Derrickson (narrator)

Isao Matsushita: Tisarana (2008) (world premiere)
Nancy Ambrose-King (oboe) Masayuki Okamoto (oboe) Miyuki Washimaya (piano)

Laurent Riou: Sonatine (2009) for oboe and piano (world premiere)
Christian Schmitt (oboe) Veronique Ngo Hien (piano)

Judith Bingham: Billingbear for solo cor anglais
Christine Pendrill (cor anglais)

Judith Weir: Wake Your Wild Voice (2009) for bassoon and cello (world premiere)
Meyrick Alexander (bassoon) Jane Salmon (cello)

Efrem Podgaits:
Strange Dance (2000) for bassoon and piano (four hands)
Valeri Popov (bassoon) Malcolm Wilson and Robert Markham (piano)

Thea Musgrave: Night Windows (2007) for oboe and piano (world premiere)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe) Malcolm Wilson (piano)

Given the funding issues that can so often hamper the commissioning of new music these days, any concert programme featuring a world premiere performance is to be commended. That the International Double Reed Society has succeeded in staging a concert featuring no less than five world premieres in one evening is little short of extraordinary and is a major achievement in itself, no doubt borne of the society’s enthusiastic dedication and commitment to its cause.

For the week of the 21st – 25th July, Birmingham played host to the Society’s 38th annual celebration of the oboe and bassoon, the first time the Festival has been held in the United Kingdom for twenty years. With a busy daily schedule of celebrity concerts, workshops, masterclasses and recitals, the event drew some of the world’s finest exponents of double reed instruments to Birmingham, with Wednesday night’s World Premiere Concert providing a first class platform for both performers and composers, several of the latter enjoying a particularly close creative relationship with the instruments and soloists involved.

As striking as the list of performers themselves however, was the sheer diversity of the music on offer, a programme crowned by the world premiere of Thea Musgrave’s major new work for oboe and piano Night Windows, a commission by the Society itself and performed in spellbinding fashion by Nicholas Daniel and Malcolm Wilson.

The first of the world premieres, Ben Hausmann’s Cleaving Time, immediately set the scene, combining solo oboe doubling piano with narration by TM Derrickson reciting her own substantial poem, powerfully and evocatively woven around the legend of Persephone, in a work that oboist Nathan Hughes introduced as an exploration of combining differing art forms. As an oboist himself (Hausmann has recently succeeded Nathan Hughes as principal oboe with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and is on the staff of the University of Washington) the composer’s credentials in writing for the instrument were immediately evident from the highly taxing yet idiomatic solo part that from a distant, haunting opening, ultimately took on the guise and poise of Bach. The oboist’s occasional excursions to the keyboard seemed almost superfluous to the music, such was the spell cast by the combination of oboe and the beautifully nuanced recitation of TM Derrickson, her soft American accent seeming inextricably linked to the poetry whilst never failing to stress the vivid, often dramatic language employed. It made for a powerful start to the evening’s proceedings.

Born in Tokyo in 1951, Isao Matsushita studied in Berlin for a time and is also active in Japan as a conductor. Scored for oboe, bassoon and piano, Tisarana (Prayer to the Firmament) is cast in three principal sections preceded by an introduction, the music being concerned with the act of prayer as specifically linked to “The Three Refuges” of Buddhism, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In terms of musical language, this was perhaps the most adventurous work of the night, with a sparing (yet effective) use of multiphonics from the wind players, and a kaleidoscopic sound world that drew the listener in from the opening. The celestial second section of the work was perhaps the most effective overall, with Nancy Ambrose-King on oboe and bassoonist Masayuki Okamoto fine advocates, even though the demanding piano part threatened to overpower them towards the close. The composer was on hand in the audience to acknowledge the warm applause.

The clue to the musical language of Laurent Riou’s Sonatine, could be found in the “secret” dedication of the second movement to Henri Dutilleux, for this was a work shot through with French melodic and harmonic fingerprints. In four fleeting yet effectively contrasted movements, often with the piano playing as significant a role as the oboe, the influence of Dutilleux was always subtly evident, with featured artist Christian Schmitt giving a physically animated and immediately engaging account of the virtuosic oboe part.

Having been premiered the previous day, Judith Bingham’s Billingbear for solo Cor Anglais enjoyed a second outing in the hands of the London Symphony Orchestra’s principal player Christine Pendrill, this time in the clear and spacious acoustic of the Town Hall as opposed to Birmingham Conservatoire’s Adrian Boult Hall. A haunting evocation of an Elizabethan mansion destroyed by fire in the 1920’s and the family seat of the Neville’s, the music is based around a melodic fragment from My Ladye Neville’s Virginal Book. Judith Bingham is a masterful creator of atmosphere, be it in her choral or her instrumental writing and the music’s evocative echoes and shadows were well suited to the warmth of the Cor Anglais, as well as being memorably captured by Christine Pendrill in a delicately shaped and nuanced performance.

Bingham’s close contemporary Judith Weir has forged a reputation for finely, often sparingly crafted music of considerable originality and, in common with numerous other of her works, Wake Your Wild Voice for bassoon and cello, draws on Weir’s Scottish roots for its inspiration. The title, drawn from Sir Walter Scott’s “Gathering Song of Donald the Black”, is reflected in music strongly imbued with Scots atmosphere, the bassoon part evolving into a technically demanding “wild” voice, exploring a side of the instrument rarely exploited in orchestral spheres, whilst the cello provides an initially simple chordal accompaniment, clearly drawn from the drone of the bagpipes. Meyrick Alexander’s passionate reading of the stamina-sapping bassoon part contributed to a strong first impression which the composer was in the audience to witness.

The bassoon also figured in the work that followed, Efrem Podgaits’ Strange Dance, or perhaps more appropriately “Strange Dances” given that there are actually five short dance movements involved. Podgaits studied in Moscow, his works including twelve operas, three symphonies and twelve concerti and judging from this work, the influences of Stravinsky and Prokofiev have, to some degree, stayed with him. The winner here though was Russian bassoonist and former member of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Valeri Popov. With a solo part that tested to the limits, often taking the instrument into the extreme upper stratosphere of its range, Popov gave a staggeringly assured performance which found the idiom and rhythmic play of the music, with equally assured four handed piano accompaniment from Malcolm Wilson and Robert Markham.

Nicholas Daniel clearly enjoys a natural affinity with the music of Thea Musgrave, an affinity mirrored in Musgrave’s admiration for his playing, one suspects. Her recent Oboe Quartet, the double concerto Two’s Company, for oboe and percussion and the earlier concerto for solo oboe and orchestra Helios, are all works that have been championed by Daniel, who was quick to thank those members of the Double Reed Society present in the audience for funding the commission of Musgrave’s Night Windows.

Having lived in the United States for many years now, it is the American artist Edward Hopper that has provided Musgrave with the inspiration for the work, although the five movements, entitled Loneliness, Anger, Nostalgia, Despair and Frenzy are the outcome of the composer’s own personal response to the lonely atmosphere inherent in many of Hopper’s paintings rather than an attempt at specific programmatic musical imagery. Either way, the impact in Birmingham Town Hall was electrifying, both emotionally and musically as Nicholas Daniel gave a powerfully wrought and charged account of Musgrave’s intense and at times deeply personal music. At the conclusion Daniel related the story of a telephone call he received from the composer whilst she was writing the work, in which she commented that she felt the penultimate movement, Despair, to be possibly the best piece she had ever written. It was no coincidence then that the repeat performance of that single movement that followed as an encore seemed to galvanise the spell that Night Windows cast over the appreciative Town Hall audience.

It proved to be a thought provoking and eminently suitable way to round off an evening of double reed virtuosity and contemporary musical diversity of the highest order.

Christopher Thomas

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