Concerts

HCMF 2013: Séverine Ballon

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Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra and Mauro Lanza and a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, and Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long. Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention and result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause and effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried and tested (and tired) ideas. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Shorts

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There’s a curious phenomenon that seems to strike people the longer they spend at HCMF: a cross between regret and guilt at the events they’re not attending. i periodically suffer from it myself, and never more so than on their annual ‘Shorts’ day, which took place yesterday. Fifteen small- and mid-scale concerts, containing 38 pieces, in total lasting around 13 hours—it would take a certain kind of person to go to everything, and i have to confess i’m not that kind, so i experienced what we might call “the HCMF qualm”, my conscience nagging me at the music i didn’t hear and which may well have turned out to be brilliant.

However, i did get to nine concerts, and a thoroughly mixed bag they were. The first thing to say is that it’s an incredible treat to be able to hear such a diverse selection of music as this, and the performance standard throughout the day ranged from highly competent to downright dazzling. The compositional standard was rather more variable, and almost every concert had its share of flops (the worst that i experienced being Jonathan Cole’s butt-clenchingly tedious saxophone quartet Menhir, which the otherwise talented Fukio Ensemble could do nothing to save). There were plenty of moments of magic, however: the wonderfully delicious conclusion to Kerry Andrew‘s anthem O lux beata Trinitas, the disorienting division between fragrance and grind in Rose Dodd‘s electroacoustic Aandacht, some sensitively-judged interaction between organ and electronics in Huw Morgan‘s The Unseeing Eye at the Lung’s Heart and a fascinating sonic network of relationships between clarinet and string trio in Dai Fujikura‘s Halcyon. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima

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This morning saw Brian Ferneyhough back at St Paul’s Hall, his music this time being performed by the outstanding Quatuor Diotima, alongside works by Gérard Pesson, Miroslav Smka and György Ligeti.

Ligeti’s 1968 String Quartet No. 2 came last in the concert, but i mention it first because—as Ligeti’s music always tends to do—it forced a complete reappraisal of the three pieces heard before it. One very basic issue it highlighted was of the current predilection for larger-scale forms—or, conversely, composers’ (perhaps passive) reluctance to articulate works through relatively short movements. Sections and episodes don’t count in this respect; they’re an entirely different kind of demarcation and don’t induce the same sort of ‘soft reset’ brought about by the separation of movements. Let me just clarify that i don’t think one approach is better than the other; it’s just interesting to reflect that—with the obvious exception of James Dillon’s New York Triptych—everything i’ve heard both in this concert and the entire previous day consisted of substantial single spans. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Ensemble Linea + Irvine Arditti

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The final concert yesterday took place, once again, in St Paul’s Hall, featuring Ensemble Linea, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz. It featured three new works, by Brian Ferneyhough, Raphaël Cendo and James Clarke.

Ferneyhough and Clarke appear at first to come from different points of origin; Ferneyhough states that he cannot begin work without a title, whereas Clarke has avoided descriptive or allusory titles for many years in order not to “interfere with or assist” the listener. However, Ferneyhough’s employment of titles is, to some extent at least, a conceit (on his own admission), providing a context of sorts but not really determining what takes place in any kind of meaningful way. Indeed, his work Liber Scintillarum (“book of sparks”), here being given its UK première, continues a strain of compositional thought that Ferneyhough terms ‘involuntary scherzi’, the material deriving from elements of unpredictability and (one assumes) spontaneity, rather than according to an intricate, pre-organised scheme. Read more

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HCMF 2013: London Sinfonietta

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Truth be told, it isn’t often i find myself lost for words. About 40 minutes ago, the London Sinfonietta finished their performance of the UK première of Georg Friedrich Haasin vain, and i’m still trying to force some coherence about the experience. A few weeks back, i procured a recording of the piece, but ultimately decided not to listen in advance, and approach the work cold. What i haven’t been able to avoid, and retrospectively i think it’s unfortunate, is some of the discussions that have been circulating in recent times about this performance. It certainly seems to have put the hype in hyperbole.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, and until tonight i was just such a person, in vain was written in response to a resurgence in the far right in Haas’ homeland of Austria. In that respect, it’s interesting to be confronted by it after having heard Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge a few hours before. Like Ore’s piece, i don’t think in vain can be described as a political work, rather an attempt to frame the reality of Haas’ perception of the situation. Unlike Ore’s piece, there is an overwhelming engagement with futility in in vain; there’s encouragement to be found, but of a different kind and arrived at from very different means. Read more

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HCMF 2013: BBC Singers

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Today’s second concert was back in St Paul’s Hall, featuring the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Kok, performing works by Charlotte Seither, Bent Sørensen and Cecilie Ore. Surprisingly, it’s an entire decade since the BBC Singers last appeared at HCMF; on the strength of this concert, one hopes they’ll be back more regularly from now on.

Seither’s Haut Terrain, receiving its UK première today, at first gave me misgivings. The piece is occupied throughout by drawn out drones, clashes and suspensions, and i suspect (confession time) it was impatience on my part that made it seem to bode poorly. But as it continued, shifting more than was initially obvious, one became aware of a music that seemed to have made portable the tropes and mannerisms of religious chant. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Red Note Ensemble

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This year’s pilgrimage to HCMF began, as it always seems to, at St Paul’s Hall, for a concert given this afternoon by Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, directed by Garry Walker. They performed three works, something old(-ish), something new(-ish) and something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola and ensemble, that proved itself the weakest. Britons have long ascribed drab efficiency to being a key attribute of German engineering, yet it seems to be increasingly the preserve of Irish contemporary music. In Fennessy’s case, the music was dynamically neutered, harmonically static, texturally bland—a deliberate conspiracy on behalf of the ensemble in order to present to the solo viola a wall of sound with which it could contend. i’m guessing Fennessy’s intention was to obtain aggression in such an unyielding onslaught, but in practice, it didn’t so much bare fangs as dentures, becoming monotonous, even blank, in its blunt consistency. Ultimately the texture parts and dissipates, leaving the viola alone and heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios and oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune. Read more

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Ny lydkunst i Bergen

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My recent travels in Norway – focused in and around the environs of second city Bergen – yielded plenty of jaw-droppingly splendorous landscape, but nothing in the way of contemporary music. Neither of the city’s CD stores betray any knowledge of the existence of Arne Nordheim, Maja Ratke and the like, while the concert repertoire essentially revolves around the (not unsurprising) omnipresence of Edvard Grieg. However, disappointment was turned on its head during my final morning in the city last Friday, when wandering through the network of backstreets i came upon Østre. An otherwise anonymous building, the billboard outside proclaims it to be a ‘Hus for Lydkunst og Elektronisk Musikk’ (House for Sound Art and Electronic Music); inside, the custodian explained that Østre (formerly the Lydgalleriet) is the only space dedicated to sound art in all of Scandinavia. The collection of books and CDs for sale certainly backed up its avant-garde credentials, and anyone in the Bergen area would do well to check it out, especially within the next couple of weeks. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Cikada Ensemble

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The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, and while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Arditti Quartet

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Two months may have passed, but memories of the all-too-brief weekend i spent at HCMF 2012 are alive and well; so let’s pick up where i left off.

The second day of my HCMF experience began once again in St Paul’s Hall, confronted by the understated marvel that is the Arditti Quartet. Despite the palpable excitement that pervaded the previous day’s concerts, the atmosphere in the hall on this occasion was that unique kind of highly-charged tension that only a few performers and ensembles can engender. The quartet had brought with them four works that initially seemed strikingly different from each other, but three of them ultimately proved to be united by a common line of enquiry, making the most of out of, materially speaking, very little. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Ensemble Resonanz

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The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and comprised just three pieces, all focusing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.

It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods and atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark and ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist and strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed? Read more

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HCMF 2012: Oslo Sinfonietta

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Following a collection of strangers down a bleak back street to a gloomy factory and then passing through a makeshift entrance labelled ‘The Blending Shed’ might sound like the makings of a nightmare, but this was the way in which i found myself at Bates Mill, for yesterday evening’s concert given by the Oslo Sinfonietta. What constitutes a sign? What do words and gestures really signify? How do we interpret them, and when we have, how might others respond? These questions occupied both of the works featured in the concert, which were each receiving their UK première.

Ignas KrunglevičiusGradients is founded on a bizarre exchange initiated by two Cornell PhD students: a conversation between two online chatbots, their addled, artificially intelligent dialogue forming Krunglevičius’ libretto. The piece didn’t feel promising at first, comprising a series of sliding overlapping lines on and around the same pitch, dripping with dissonance, while four singers (members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) uttered a related sequence of open-mouthed ululations. So far, so meh. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Heather Roche

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Yesterday the evening began with clarinettist Heather Roche, of whom multiple friends have spoken warmly but i had never heard play. The recital took place deep in the bowels of the University’s temple-like Creative Arts building, and comprised a selection of pieces incorporating electronics. Quite a few of them—Aaron Einbond’s Resistance, Chikako Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) and Sylvain Pohu’s l’identité—left me cold, revisiting tropes and methods that have become overused and hackneyed. i’ve written in the past about the endless parade of works where electronics pick up and play with material given off by the soloist, and while, of course, there’s scope to do genuinely interesting things with this, it’s some time since i’ve encountered any. Einbond’s Resistance felt especially moribund, assuming that the sounds of Occupy Wall Street would somehow embody his material with electrical charge, yet the result sounded merely exploitative. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Nicolas Hodges

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My HCMF 2012 experience began at midday today in St Paul’s Hall, with Nicolas Hodges’ lunchtime recital featuring piano music by Jean Barraqué. It’s rare, but marvellous, when a concert can be genuinely eye-opening, and everything about this recital was just that. Before the concert, i knew very little of Barraqué’s music, and as Hodges progressed through the first few pieces—Intermezzo, Pièce pour piano, Thème et variations (Retour was sadly omitted from the programme)—a distinct first impression began to take shape: enigmatic, mysterious, aloof, music realised through a sequence of loosely but unmistakably inter-connected melodic intentions that, despite being diffused through wide intervallic displacement, somehow hold together. They brought a very different composer to mind: Morton Feldman, due both to the meticulous way notes were placed after each other, as well as the striking way Barraqué grabs hold of one’s perception of time; despite the brevity of these pieces, their ability to make time malleable was impressive. Read more

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir and orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy and reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers – the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner and Michael Seal) and a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West – in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives and hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth and 6) love—are all deeply significant and important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion and feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast. Read more

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Marc Yeats – sturzstrom (World Première)

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Two weeks ago, i was fortunate to be in the cool gloom of Beer Quarry Caves, a man-made cave network on the east coast of Devon. The caves themselves—resulting from two millennia of mining, beginning with the Romans—are fascinating enough, but i was there for something almost as remarkable, the world première of sturzstrom, the latest composition by Marc Yeats. Marc’s output is almost mind-bogglingly relentless, and he brings a highly infectious enthusiasm to every project he undertakes. This particular venture was no exception, the first in a series of four commissions under the umbrella title ‘Coastal Voices’, a choral project that “aims to give a new voice to the coastline”; Marc’s response was to create what he calls “a landslide event for voices”:

the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces as perceived by the composer and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers. […] The successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and these culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, travelling west to east, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Blindon on Christmas Eve, 1839.

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Unsuk Chin – Šu

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As as addendum to my coverage of last year’s Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin (part 1, part 2), here is one of the few remaining pieces from that day, which was only broadcast a few weeks ago. Šu is a concerto for sheng and orchestra, the sheng being one of the most ancient traditional Chinese instruments, dating back over 3,000 years. Comprising a series of pipes played via a mouthpiece, its sound is something like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion; its appearance is like nothing else at all. Alongside the traditional instrument is a keyed version that enables fully chromatic tempered pitches, and it’s for this instrument that Chin composed Šu.

Šu is one of Chin’s most stubbornly enigmatic works; in both structural and material terms, it doesn’t so much develop as flex, passages of great delicacy repeatedly answered by more brutal outbursts. Wisely, Chin assigns the orchestra to a secondary role, allowing the sheng—an instrument that can barely muster a mezzo-forte—to act as both instigator and guide for proceedings. The ‘flexing’ i spoke of results in an episodic music, although Chin takes an audibly different approach in the two halves of the piece. Read more

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Apologies; and forthcoming

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Apologies, one and all, for the lengthy hiatus here on 5:4. In a break with convention, i’ve been finishing off two or three new compositions and then—entirely in keeping with recent convention—fighting off a rather stubborn virus. Before service resumes properly, then, let me flag up a couple of performances of these new pieces that are happening next month, both at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The first is nolite facere dicunt enim, a work for 12 voices written for the vocal group Icarus, based at the Conservatoire. The group, which changes membership each year, is the brainchild of Chi Hoe Mak, one of the most wonderfully effervescent conductors i’ve ever met. It’s not a piece i want to say anything about at this stage, but you can take a look at the full score below. The first performance will be taking place on Wednesday 6 June; the concert starts at 7.30pm and tickets (undoubtedly very cheap) will be available on the door. Do come along and be shocked, appalled, enriched and/or entertained by it if you can.

EDIT: Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, this performance has been postponed.

Second is a work for voice and five players called the octave of the grief of the clone that leapt to the remainder of night sky; that title is taken from the writings of one of my ongoing inspirations, Kenji Siratori, as is the sung text, which uses Siratori’s poem Foolish/Moon. It’s not possible to show a score for this piece, as there isn’t one; the five players—clarinet, bassoon, viola, double bass and guitar—are all independent of each other and of the vocalist, although a couple of the players interact and affect the ensemble in different ways. This piece was written for the soprano Ruth Hopkins, who will be performing the piece with members of the ensemble Thumb, also based at the Conservatoire. The concert is on Monday 11 June, starting at 8pm; there may be a performance in Camden later in the year, but more about that as and when. Again, if you’re in the area, do come along.

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Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto

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Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn’t say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC’s broadcast. However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is. The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. In the concert hall, Koh’s violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it’s good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast.

Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it’s a piece rather difficult to unpick. In some ways, the textures are simpler and more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic. It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings and natural harmonics. The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, and then halt. The soloist’s first cadenza is wiry and (in the best sense) aimless, its twists and swoops more a result of fun than purpose. But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, and she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that’s urged on by orchestral stomps. Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, and a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement’s climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting. The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin’s trademark use of percussion. Read more

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Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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