Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s 25th birthday party was partly pooped by an important ethical question on Sunday night.
The concert was being recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast at a later date, and featured a typically stimulating BCMG programme of the well-established and the new, Oliver Knussen’s understated but confidence-inspiring beat presiding from the conductor’s stand.
We were applauding Ligeti’s Melodien, its cascading colours and pixellated textures downloading a hotbed of ideas all streaming from the original source and moving towards a well-managed ending, when Knussen stopped us all and announced he’d like to “take it again one more time”.
No explanation: perhaps he wanted to give us the pleasure of hearing it again, but he never told us, as other conductors would have done. Perhaps he wanted a retake for the benefit of the recording - in which case this will give a false impression to the radio listeners, as this will not be the concert as originally experienced live. I’d welcome an explanation.
But this was the only hiccup in a happy evening celebrating everything BCMG continues to achieve. We heard the latest “Sound Investment” commission, Alexander Goehr’s substantial To These Dark Steps/ The Fathers are Watching, settings of poems and prose by Gabriel Levin springing from the bombing of Gaza in 2008, and one where a fastidious and enthusiastic ear for colour (alto flute to the fore, and, at one point, a spectacular lion’s roar from the percussion) sometimes clouded the intricate syllables and concluding bitter satire of the textual delivery – Christopher Gillett the adept tenor, members of the remarkable CBSO Youth Chorus projecting with urgent communication (including a well-sung and spoken solo).
Levin’s texts refer to several 20th-century composers, and some of them preceded during the evening: Ligeti (as already mentioned), Messiaen (the well-built, romantically-inflected Piece pour piano et quatuor a cordes and Webern (the Six Pieces for Orchestra in the composer’s own 13-player, three of them percussion, reduction).
And more Goehr, too, his lyrical Duos fluently, almost telepathically conveyed by violinists Alexandra Wood and Lena Zeliszweska.