For those who decry contemporary music, the easy rejoinder is that Beethoven was once contemporary. And his Eroica Symphony, with all its dissonances and extreme demands upon players and audience, grew into the greatest orchestral work ever written.
We haven’t quite reached that with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, though over their quarter-century of existence they have furnished the repertoire with many pieces worthy of further hearings.
And on Sunday we heard a repeat performance (something of a rarity in itself for contemporary works) of a recent BCMG goodie, Only the Sound Remains for viola and chamber ensemble.
At 35 minutes this is probably Howard Skempton’s longest composition (he has a reputation as a miniaturist), and constitutes a valuable addition to such a limited repertoire. During an interval discussion, Webern was frequently referred to, but it was Berg’s Violin Concerto which came to mind during a work which ruminates elegiacally, which gleams with sought-after sunshine, which is so expertly, sensitively scored, and in which passages remain in the memory. How much music today can say that?
Christopher Yates was the expressive soloist, and Martyn Brabbins the coaxing, assiduous conductor, also presiding offstage over an engaging account of Words and Music, a radio play with words by Samuel Beckett, and music added much later by Morton Feldman.
This is a piece which, like Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, explores the relationship between words and music, and engages throughout in the irony of its text and the subtlety of its music. William Oxborrow and Thomas Howes were the disembodied actors presenting themselves through stark loudspeakers – and didn’t it work!
It was perhaps tactless to sandwich between these two masterly composers the world premiere of Deep, by the Japanese Shiori Usui, BCMG composer-in-residence, and herself an enthusiastic voice-medium performer.
Audience-members sat around on special cushions in order to experience floor-vibrations, instrumentalists interweaving among them as well as playing to us down from the galleries. There were some wonderful submarine rumblings amid these surround-effects, but we also heard jungle-resonances – not least among the belchings which punctuated a glitztily romantic piano solo as the conclusion approached. Too much aural extravagance, perhaps, from the composer.