BCMG

CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Murmurs

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Since the appointment of Stephan Meier as artistic director in 2016, it’s been good to see Birmingham Contemporary Music Group starting to move beyond the relative safety that typified its mainstream-centric vision in preceding years. The group’s most recent concert, last Thursday, featured two British works alongside music by composers from Asia. However, far from being yet another example of ‘east meets west’ (a staple contemporary music cliché), on this occasion the two didn’t so much ‘meet’ as east tried to sound a bit like west, while west remained essentially indifferent to any and all notions of geography.

Not that South Korean Donghoon Shin, BCMG’s current Apprentice Composer in Residence, should in any way be deliberately aiming to make his music sound archetypally ‘eastern’, but it was interesting how much of his new work for sheng and ensemble, Anecdote, seemed actively to be avoiding it. The second of its three movements was the kind of anonymous, generic, crash-bang romp that could have been written by pretty much any average UK mainstream composer, though the presence of the sheng – performed, as ever on such occasions, by Wu Wei – did at least detract from its otherwise overfamiliar gestural palette. The piece was more engaging in its outer movements; the opening, in particular, was seriously lovely, full of delicate colours, while the final movement utilised the sheng best of all by blending it properly with the rest of the ensemble, integrating to articulate a slow, solemn music that, at its close, became beguilingly ghostly. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: BCMG, Nordic Music Days, Alba New Music

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Having packed up for their summer break, ensembles and festivals are starting to get going again in the weeks and months ahead. Most immediately, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is poised to pop the corks in celebration of their 30th birthday. There’s a couple of events happening in London: on 2 September at Wilton’s Music Hall – as part of the Proms season – they’ll be exploring music by John Luther Adams, Messiaen, Maxwell Davies, and Rebecca Saunders, and on 16 September at Milton Court Concert Hall they’ll be tackling familiar BCMG fare, works by Stravinsky, Birtwistle and Knussen, alongside a piece by the group’s 2015/16 Composer-in-Residence, Patrick Brennan. Most exciting, though, is the day of shenanigans that will be taking place in Birmingham on Sunday 10 September. There’s a free afternoon workshop for families, followed by a ‘canal serenade’ including music by Ondřej AdámekRichard Baker and Yannis Kyriakides, and in the evening, a concert at the CBSO Centre featuring more from Ondřej Adámek, Rebecca SaundersInto the Blue and Helmut Lachenmann‘s Zwei Gefühle – Musik mit Leonardo. It’s going to be quite a day. Full details about all these events can be found here.

Later in September, the Nordic Music Days will be making one of its only ventures ever beyond their respective countries, spending four days at the South Bank in London, from 28 September to 1 October. As you’d expect all of the music is by Nordic composers – a mouth-watering prospect in itself – and there’s a considerable amount of it, including works by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a chance to hear her wonderful orchestral piece Aerality), Daníel BjarnasonHanna HartmanØyvind TorvundKaija Saariaho and many, many others whose work is entirely new to me. Many of the performers will be familiar, though: the Philharmonia, Exaudi, Distractfold and the Riot Ensemble will all be taking part. There’s also a conference and seminars discussing various pertinent issues associated with contemporary music, particularly from the perspective of younger composers, in addition to various workshops, an outdoor interactive sculpture and lots more.

And in early October, Alba New Music returns for a welcome second year. Taking place on Friday 5 and Saturday 6 October, this year’s programme includes a performance of Brian Ferneyhough‘s Time and Motion Study II by the duo who created the remarkable DVD recording of the piece, Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold (their documentary about creating the recording, Electric Chair Music, will also be screened); their concert also includes Jonathan Harvey‘s AdvayaFeldman‘s Projections 1 and Helmut Lachenmann‘s Pression. Saturday afternoon brings an opportunity to hear John Wall in action, and in the evening Scottish flute-master Richard Craig will be giving the final concert in St Giles’ Cathedral, including Ferneyhough‘s 1986 bass flute and tape piece Mnemosyne. There will also be various talks elaborating and discussing the music. For more info, keep an eye on Alba’s website and Facebook page.

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Remembering the Future

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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. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Benedict Mason Portrait

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Portrait concerts are rarely so eye-opening or indeed eye-popping as BCMG’s for the composer Benedict Mason given at the CBSO Centre on Sunday evening. The point of such concerts is obvious, but it’s hard in hindsight to determine whether or to what extent this one really demonstrated a coherent idea of its subject. In some respects, they hadn’t made this an easy objective, featuring just two works by Mason bookending music by Charles Ives.

The first, Nodding Trilliums & Curve-Lined Angles, a work commissioned and premièred by BCMG in 1990, and directed on this occasion by Ilan Volkov, has timbre as an overriding concern. The six movements are both characterised by and named after the respective sources that dominate them: Xylophones, Rattles, Drums, Toys, Claves, Vibraphone. They act a bit like windows opening out onto vividly depicted, self-contained worlds, and despite their generally conservative character, with echoes of Stravinsky here and there, these worlds are convincing and enticing. By turns one encounters exhilaratingly motoric jollification; ticklish music pieced together from an array of nervous tics; terminally unstable music that, due either to ineptitude or inebriation, keeps falling over; an apparent sunrise over an impossible zoo, the gentle, mellifluous context of the former filled with strange ululations, calls and whistles of the latter; an exercise in engineered misalignment, triggered and exacerbated by the four percussionists walking around the space like politicians clamouring for support, advocating wildly different policies on tempo; and finally a place of the purest magic, where everything has turned to liquid, dripping, flowing, splashing and glinting as its music sloshed around the space, coloured by the work’s most complex harmonic palette. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Parallel Colour

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You’d have been forgiven for expecting last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group—titled “Parallel Colour”—to be primarily concerned with harmony, or failing that, timbre. But in fact the overriding connection between many of the six featured works was stark economy of means. It’s a phrase that sounds intrinsically praiseworthy, yet the boundary between music sounding impressively restrained (concentrated) and oppressively constrained (dull, lifeless) is a complex one, infinitely thin and all too easy unwittingly to cross. For Jonathan Harvey, whose short solo clarinet piece Cirrus Light was given an intense and excellently controlled performance by Timothy Lines, despite considerable limits of pitch range, dynamic and articulation, the music never felt anything other than entirely free and unbounded. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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The CBSO Centre, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group‘s home, found itself seriously packed on Friday evening, for a concert in which the ensemble was joined by baritone Roderick Williams. Just two works were on the programme, Dominic Muldowney‘s An English Song Book, a BCMG commission from 2011 comprising five cabaret songs, two Shakespeare settings plus a new song unveiled on this occasion, and—no doubt the chief reason for the impressive turnout—Howard Skempton‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, also receiving its world première. It was a wise pairing; stylistically speaking the two composers’ works were worlds apart, yet various fundamental connections revealed themselves throughout the evening. Read more

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