Sunday, 6 November 2011

Pavilions: New Music Show 2 - London Sinfonietta/Brabbins, 5 November 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Charlie Piper – Insomniac (world premiere: London Sinfonietta commission)
Dai Fujikura – Double Bass Concerto (world premiere: London Sinfonietta commission)
Steven Daverson – Elusive Tangibility III: ‘Clandestine Haze’ (United Kingdom premiere)
Iris ter Schiphorst – Zerstören (United Kingdom premiere)
Francisco Coll – Piedras (United Kingdom premiere)

Across the River Thames from the Queen Elizabeth Hall lies the Palace of Westminster, whose rescue from Guy Fawkes’s incendiary project some care to celebrate on 5th November. (Many of the rest of us wish there were a similarly elegant solution to rid ourselves of our venal, careerist political class.) The London Sinfonietta offered fireworks of its own, in the second of its Pavilions concerts: five United Kingdom premieres, of which two were also world premieres. Alas, I missed the earlier concert, which had presented no fewer than five world premieres of short works by James Olsen, Shiva Feshareki, Edmund Finnis, Tim Hodgkinson, and Isambard Khroustaliov.

It seemed to me that perhaps the strongest and certainly the most winningly suggestive piece was the third in Steven Daverson’s six-part Elusive Tangibility series, ‘Clandestine Haze’. The cycle is intended to treat with things that can be seen yet not necessarily touched: in this case, an ephemeral clandestine haze, such as might be evoked by the flickering of a candle. Written for alto flute/bass flute, bass clarinet/contra-bass clarinet, trombone, percussion, viola, and cello, it emerged as a fascinating study in shifting timbres and subtleties of motion, with the occasional surprise, which therefore truly registered. There is some use of extended techniques, for instance the breathy bass flute. This is a highly accomplished, even beguiling work of contemporary Klangfarbenmelodie: I especially liked the resonance – if only within my own imagination – of the trombone’s later line, as if a modern refugee from the spiritual land of Webern.

Francisco Coll’s Piedras (‘Stones’) was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Written for flute, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon/contrabassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, harp, piano, and two percussionists, it concerns itself, according to the composer, with a dualism that has long interested him between the stable and the unstable, partly derived, as is often his practice, from inspiration in the visual arts. The opening material, both in writing and performance (the London Sinfonietta under Martyn Brabbins), is lively and incisive, full of glittering sonorities, eventually transformed into more dream-like material: a Romantic horn call especially evocative here. Distinction between the two types of material is not, however, absolute: for me, some of the most striking music was to be found in the liminal zones of transition.

The first performance of Charlie Piper’s Insomniac opened the concert. A work in three movements, it concerns itself with three different states in another liminal zone, that between sleep and wakefulness, and is written for flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, bassoon/contrabassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano, harp, string quartet, and double bass. Throughout one senses a heartbeat, but varying context enables, even compels, one to hear and to respond to it differently. Jagged rhythms remain a constant in the first movement, whatever the Stravinskian changes of metre and gradual shifts in instrumentation. Slowly shifting harmonies lull in the second movement, inspired by Piper’s period of almost continual sunlight in Gotland. Externally induced insomnia – a neighbour’s party, for instance – provides the idea for the final movement, almost a concertante piece for aggressive trumpet, with a prominent role for double bass too.

Iris ter Schiphorst’s 2005-6 Zerstören was the only piece to employ electronics, alongside an ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, percussion, sampler, string quartet, and double bass. One sensed a sound-world for the modern city, the world of the motor car, yet it was not always clear, at least to me, what lies beneath that sonic surface. Perhaps further hearings would reveal more.

Dai Fujikura’s double bass concerto received its world premiere, Enno Senft the soloist, the Sinfonietta’s forces comprising flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, two horns, two trumpets, two percussionists, three violins, and two violas. It certainly proffered ample scope for Senft’s virtuosity: most impressive indeed. I was less convinced by the musical substance, heightening the doubts I felt earlier this year at the premiere of his Flare, for string quartet. For most of the time, the soloist employs pizzicato, turning to his bow towards the end. The initial material, according to the programme note, draws upon kinship with the ‘Shamisen’, a Japanese guitar-like instrument. The technique is certainly guitar-like and there is very much an ‘Oriental’ tinge to the music, a little too obviously so for these ears. Some material echoes Messiaen, again a little too obviously. For all the claims concerning new solo techniques, however, the writing is not that unconventional, whether in the many – too many? – slides in the writing for ensemble strings or the inevitable soloist resort to harmonics at the end, the latter sounding born of a perceived need to tick a box. There is some rather soft-edged neo-Romanticism to be heard too. Still, if this piece emerged a little too eagerly fashionable, it was a pleasure to experience six new works in predictably committed performances.

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