Both the title of last night’s BCMG concert, ‘Remembering the Future’, and its prevailing tone emphasised a looking back, and with good reason, as this was the final concert in Stephen and Jackie Newbould’s long tenure running the ensemble. Thankfully, that didn’t cause the evening to sag into mere nostalgia, focusing instead on the world premières of four new commissions, prefaced by a pair of works from BCMG’s repertoire. The ensemble was reduced in size on this occasion to a mere seven players, making the concert more than usually intimate.
The idea of looking back meant that the majority of the pieces referenced earlier musical idioms. Judith Weir‘s 2012 Blue-Green Hill turned to Scottish folk music to create a kind of pastel-hued, powder-puff confection heavily redolent of Copland, with occasional whiffs of Stravinsky. Notwithstanding the way it worked as a melting pot, breaking down the folk melodies in order to re-use and intermingle their elements, it felt impossible to break through its layers of sonic sugar, which were often so saccharine it felt positively fattening to listen to. Richard Baker turned to a Welsh children’s song for his new work Hwyl fawr ffrindiau (‘goodbye friends’). The simple way Baker set up overlapping falling lines resulted in a slow, sad music, as though it were gradually bowing its head. Initiated with short declamatory statements from the oboe – extremely cutting by contrast – and with a curious hauntological twist from a music box shortly before its ethereal coda, it proved disarmingly affecting. John Woolrich seeked similar ends in his new Swan Song, but the fragmented delivery of transient moments of something cantabile felt stilted and over-earnest; only in a brief episode halfway through when the players drifted into focus on a near-unison line did it gain real power and beauty, but this was an ephemeral moment in an otherwise weak, wandering piece that frequently sounded more cerebral than it (presumably) is.
Melinda Maxwell performed a very short oboe improvisation derived in part from letters from the Newboulds’ names; having attained extremes of snake-charmer-on-acid melodic psychedelia (employing delicious and constant switches of timbral colour; her remarkable skill on the instrument has never been so overwhelming apparent), Maxwell brought it down to a smoky, bluesy conclusion that made the CBSO Centre feel as though it were reduced to the cosy size of a small box room. Zoë Martlew evoked the world of cabaret in probably the first ever portrait of that peculiar phenomenon, so proximate to BCMG’s environs, the Birmingham Slag. Laden with bangs and sniffs and sighs and scratches (courtesy of sand blocks; i don’t even want to imagine what those sounds are meant to represent), her Broad St. Burlesque occupied a seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape, dominated by a bass clarinet that seemed to be trying different approaches – some melodic, others less elegant – of making a pass at everyone in the vicinity. When that failed, the ensemble abandoned all attempts at gentility for an entirely percussive epilogue culminating in a surfeit of blown kisses, the last of which was a unison smacker on the lips of the entire audience. Not since Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face have i heard anything so gleefully tawdry. Fabulous.
The most telling pieces did not look back but instead occupied a soundworld and spoke with a language entirely their own. Howard Skempton‘s Field Notes, which toured Britain a couple of years ago in collaboration with visual art by Matthew Harris, continually alluded without ever referencing anything. As is so often the case in Skempton’s music, this has the effect of making the music uncanny, familiar and alien at the same time, but rendered especially comfortable here through a decidedly autumnal harmonic palette, its delicate counterpoint playing out beneath an imaginary dusky sky. Another striking paradox was the way it seemed so languorous, even weary, yet with energy clearly running through every phrase, but then the charm of paradoxes is perhaps the defining feature of practically every Skempton composition. Luke Bedford‘s new work In Bright Black Ink went deeper, darker and packed the most emotionally potent punch of the evening. With the exception of the violin, every instrument remains in its lowest registers, articulating an accelerating series of heavy, heartfelt sighs, founded upon a small oscillating motif in the piano. These sighs are embellished and coloured in diverse ways, given warmth from the bass clarinet through variations of tremolo, tonguing and timbral trill, deprived of warmth in vibrato-less icy threads from violin and cello. The sighs, dying away, slowly turn to surging groans, making the music audibly ache, whereupon an unsettling repeated high note from the piano precipitates an eerie end on a high harmonic. It was a strange but extremely eloquent and immediate highlight in a concert tinged throughout with tones of melancholy.
Following a first encore of Oliver Knussen’s Secret Psalm (it was Knussen’s 64th birthday), it fell to Howard Skempton to wrap things up with his splendidly obtuse accordion miniature One for the Road, a piece that sounds like an inebriated performer practising chord progressions, resultant streaks of minor and major permeating each other. Here too, albeit amusingly, was melancholy, and with it, the end of an era.