Review: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, at CBSO Centre

The music of Howard Skempton, fastidious and with an elegant clarity of simplicity, speaks worlds to the engaged listener, and Saturday’s celebration of his work from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group drew an overflowing house – fellow-composers, critics. sponsors, and “mere” enthusiastic listeners.

 A second half largely devoted to Skempton’s choral music, fluently and fearlessly delivered, unaccompanied and perfectly tuned by the vocal ensemble EXAUDI under the unobtrusive yet totally effective direction of James Weeks, was interspersed with delicious miniatures by Ulrich Heinein (cello) and James Woodrow (guitar).

In particular the Song of Solomon settings were ravishing, and galling to those of us who have long aspired to similar things. But the question arose in my mind: is it actually technically necessary for choristers to sing in such cut-crystal Home Service tones? Probably it is, but I’d like to be told by an expert in the field.

The main meat of the evening was the premiere of Skempton’s Only the Sound Remains, ostensibly a viola concerto, but one in which, during a 35-minute single movement, the soloist very much acts as a ruminative observer to the happenings in the rest of this well-balanced orchestra.

Christopher Yates was the selfless protagonist, matching his tones with an accurate ear to the orchestral activity. The textures were magical, the mood elegiacal, and the whole piece was a wonderful evocation of the character of the instrument.

It was perhaps invidious to shoe-horn a work by another composer, nowhere near as experienced as Skempton, into this box of delights. 22-year-old Charlie Usher is undoubtedly a composer of promise, but his Slow Pan, premiered here as the BCMG’s latest “Sound Investment” commission, over-emphasised the exploits of a hard-working pianist set against a tiny ensemble, among which Usher seemed reluctant to specify which percussion instruments should actually be used.