IF I was asked to nominate the most accessible, ear-beguiling treat composed by a fully paid-up member of the postwar European avant-garde, it would probably be Folk Songs by Luciano Berio.
The third in the popular series of family concerts from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group dismantled this spicy sequence of songs from across Europe and used them as a thread through a lively programme exploring various aspects of the human voice. It featured three contrasting singers in Erollyn Wallen, Eileen Hulse and Lore Lixenberg.
BCMG’s exemplary spirit of adventure was reflected not only in the unconventional presentation, shaped and led by conductor Peter Wiegold and featuring lovely visual projections by Jonathan Lee, but in the fact that the concert featured no fewer than five premieres. This is not counting Wallen’s I Am a Story in Sound, which was really more of a participation exercise for the audience.
The most substantial was Wallen’s English Folk Songs: From Eleanor to Sweet William, which set a new version by Wesley Stace of an ancient folktale. Sung by the composer, and written in a style somewhere between contemporary classical and pop, it didn’t make a strong impression on me. But I will reserve judgement, as I didn’t feel the balance was ideal.
Of three instrumental miniatures inspired by mythical beasts, by John Woolrich, Peter Wiegold and Matthew Sergeant, it was Wiegold’s glistening Youwarkee for solo harp, helped out by touches of percussion, that impressed most at first hearing.
With Lore Lixenberg in charge of the Folk Songs, Eileen Hulse delivered the vocal pyrotechnics of Cathy Berberian’s initially amusing but overlong cut-and-paste visual score Stripsody and the brief solo work Elephant Woman, a setting of a poem by Jo Shapcott by Birmingham composer Liz Johnson.
Hulse’s stratospheric range was also a feature of Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh by Oliver Knussen, in arguably the most revelatory performance in the concert.
The most dauntingly “modern” piece, it was beautifully presented to the young audience through Jonathan Lee’s animations of the original E H Shepherd illustrations. Interestingly, they seemed to enhance Knussen’s precisely calculated sonorities.