The closing weekend of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was dominated by the music of composer-in-residence, James Dillon. Saturday found him represented by two major works performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick, the piano concerto Andromeda and the first performance of Physis, a work originally commissioned over 10 years ago by the Orchestre de Paris for the bi-centennial of Berlioz’s birth but, following various organisational machinations, not ultimately performed. Before them both came L’abscencia, a short orchestral work by the 2013 HCMF composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra. If last year established anything, it was that Parra enjoys creating highly intricate textures, and these were to be found in abundance. Particularly interesting was the work’s inherently conflicted nature, where unstable surface elements acted out upon a series of shifting but otherwise stable firmaments. Parra’s approach to orchestration pays attention to the lightest and most ephemeral of sounds, which quite apart from anything else makes his music highly attractive. The work’s closing gesture was pure beauty: a tense pause followed by a kind of accented sigh, faint harmonics ascending into the ether.
Whereas L’abscencia employs modest forces (no heavy brass), both of the Dillon pieces require a very large orchestra, to the extent that Huddersfield’s Town Hall had almost all of the stalls seats removed in order to fit in all the players. This left just three rows of seats at the back, one row on each side, plus the two sides of the balcony; most of the balcony had been cordoned off which, considering what it must have cost to stage this concert, seemed an inexplicable decision. Notwithstanding these issues, the BBCSSO did excellent things with Dillon’s music. Andromeda is a curious piece. i’ve never felt convinced that it truly warrants being called a piano concerto; the pianist’s material (executed with fitting bouts of flourish by Noriko Kawai) is undeniably virtuosic, yet it doesn’t seem entirely soloistic, and the relationship the instrument has with the rest of the orchestra is, to put it mildly, cordial. The textures that make up a lot of Andromeda‘s material are often rooted in/constructed from small units, which are worked up into a turmoil of metrical regularity. Early in the piece one wonders—as one does so often with Dillon’s work—whether past music either forms its basis or is being channelled, particularly in a lovely intense early episode in the strings. But if that is the case, it soon gets subsumed into the prevailing instrumental densities, in passagework that Schick and the orchestra managed to keep impressively clear and untangled; one’s ear still tended to skitter over the surface of it all, but there was something interesting going on wherever one’s focus ended up. Compositionally speaking, though, Physis spoke with far greater alacrity. At the eleventh hour, Dillon opted to discard Part I for “purely musical reasons”, which sounds like a pretty severe edit until one considers the extant Part II is over three times its length. This second part, which now constitutes Physis in its entirety, made a huge statement, speaking with a late Romantic sensibility that brought to mind both Mahler and Wagner (reinforced by the presence of four Wagner tubas). It establishes this tone of voice right from the start, where a slow but weighty melody cuts a swathe through the orchestral texture, like a hefty river winding through a landscape. But it wasn’t all concerned with such clear-cut material, and in fact one of Dillon’s main preoccupations seems to be the interplay between concrete and abstract, the latter manifesting in sections where something discrete seems to be happening everywhere at once (not dissimilar to passages of Andromeda), a myriad threads of filigree. One of these, later on, was different; still densely complex but with the sense of a powerful current deep beneath, driving everything and steering it, perhaps a bringing together of the abstract and concrete elements into a single music. The overt romanticisms, despite this general tendency in Dillon’s more recent work, came as something of a surprise, occupying a gorgeous soundworld glittering with opulence. One can only imagine what dazzling delights are lost to us with the removal of Part I.
Yesterday brought the festival to an end in the most daunting way, a pair of concerts featuring the Arditti Quartet performing all seven of Dillon’s quartets in chronological order. Quite apart from the almost absurd ambition of it, approaching the works in this methodical manner was extremely illuminating, not just because of the way it highlighted shifts in thought and traced threads of continuity, but also the demonstrable way each quartet, despite its formal considerations and countless material twists and turns, is so highly concentrated. One way of putting it would be to say Dillon paints these quartets with a very broad brush, but perhaps a better way would be to regard them as being—both conceptually and in the act of playing out—reduced, a distillation of sorts with their preoccupations kept within strict bounds. The first two quartets strongly exhibit a sense of internal struggle; the First Quartet has a navel-gazing quality, as though scrutinising and analysing itself as the music is being performed. This difficult demeanour was only slightly softened by triadic hints beneath the surface, and episodes that appear more relaxed, as in a sequence of glassy glissandi, were in practice even harder to penetrate. The Second Quartet exacerbates this, ostensibly flighty, playful even, yet exhibits an unstoppable kind of convolution (all four players play almost constantly throughout, although this is a trait of all the quartets) that makes resolving form and material a considerable challenge. The Third Quartet, though, brings sudden lucidity, projecting overt hints that character has preceded material, dictating its tone and direction; being the first to have separate movements also helps with grasping the tenor of its arguments. From the Fourth Quartet on, a much stronger harmonic, even tonal, sense permeates the music, in tandem with an ever more foregrounded emphasis on rhythmic regularity—indeed, in the Fourth, the Ardittis looked as though they’d been tooled into a machine, their actions resembling jackhammers. The Fifth Quartet explores this further, particularly the harmonic aspects, which—similar to the way Physis comports itself—gave the impression that existing music had been refracted to produce much of its substance. In marked contrast, the Sixth Quartet pulls back to the point of almost sounding ascetic, rigorously confining the pitch material and rendering the strong rhythmic impetus diffuse. The Seventh Quartet, composed last year, brought the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival to an end with music displaying an almost literal sense of futility, its endless streams of pulse and activity ultimately producing only enervation. All told, these seven quartets encompass a truly bewildering range of musical questions, performance innovations, formal wrangles and (within the context of musical history and tradition) no little soul-searching. In different ways and to different extents they are intoxicating and baffling, thrilling and irritating—but what they never are is familiar; in each and every one of them, one can audibly hear Dillon throwing down the gauntlet to himself, in the process pulling the rug out from under us all. The demands they make need time to absorb, but an occasion like this—which felt genuinely historic—was a marvellous and rare way to begin that engagement.
This pair of concerts encapsulated the unceasing commitment and zeal that both the Arditti Quartet and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival have in bringing the most new and challenging music of our time to life; sometimes exhilarating, just as often exhausting for everyone concerned, yet is there anything in the world more rewarding?