To begin, a moan: the programme-book for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's concert last Sunday wasn’t the easiest to navigate, and indeed missed out notes regarding some of the works performed.
But what works they were. So many contemporary music concerts are clogged with no-hopers, works we will never hear again (and indeed might wish we’d never heard for the first and only time), but BCMG here brought us a rewarding programme of American compositions from the comparatively recent past, their creators having certainly earned their spurs in being admitted to the canon of composers to be taken seriously.
Most recent was the Double Trio of the recently-deceased Elliott Carter, written when the composer had well turned his century and here receiving its UK premiere. Based on call-and-response, long arching lines were punctuated by scurrying figurations, not least from the virtuosic marimba.
Henry Cowell’s 26 Simultaneous Mosaics teemed with linked-in semantic gestures and emerged as a real feat of accomplishment from the conductorless ensemble. And another spectacular soundscape came with John Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, mezzo Lucy Schaufer’s drawling delivery accompanied by Malcolm Wilson drumming on the piano-lid.
What a busy night Wilson had, including giving an encored performance of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s (yes, the Pete Seeger dynasty) busy Piano Study in Mixed Accents.
Seeger’s pungently-scored (Melinda Maxwell’s oboe an alter ego to Schaufer) Three Songs, terse and economical, were commandingly delivered, and with assiduous diction.
And Schaufer responded soaringly to the Bergian and Straussian implications of Carl Ruggles’ Vox Clamans in Deserto, homespun American despite its influences, Oliver Knussen conducting authoritatively.
The only non-American composer here was Joanna Lee, a recent Birmingham Conservatoire graduate, whose Every Inch of Many Effigies - Six Courthouse Songs created an immediately theatrical atmosphere.
Slapstick and grotesquerie enliven proceedings, and baritone Leigh Melrose was the lively and sinister soloist, Knussen conducting this world premiere with his usual generosity to other composers.