Rhinegold Darren Henley: How things change

Keith Clarke

Worth every mile

9:00, 19th March 2017

A four-hour round drive for a one-hour concert is probably a bit daft, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s exploration of American music at St David’s Hall Cardiff on 4 February was worth every mile. And you have to admire the boast: ‘100 Years of Composing in America’ in just 60 minutes (or a few more, by the time director Stephan Meier had found his way through his introductions). It boiled down to works by four composers spanning the century, from Charles Ives to his protégé Elliott Carter, and as we have come to expect from BCMG, the playing was superb – hats off to violinist Lena Zeliszewska, cellist Ulrich Heinen and pianist John Snijders.

BCMG: 100 years in 60 minutes
BCMG: 100 years in 60 minutes

John Cage’s 1952 Water Music had Snidjers fiddling with the volume control on a radio, blowing bubbles in water, tooting bird whistles and shuffling a deck of cards. He even played the piano now and again. Ives’ piano trio offers a great game of Spot the Tune in the Presto, titled TSIAJ (‘This scherzo is a joke’), in contrast to the huge concentration of Carter’s last work, Epigrams, which BCMG premiered at Aldeburgh four years ago. But the desert island disc was Morton Feldman’s Durations II for cello and piano, where the players get to choose how long the notes should be and when to play them. It was all wrapped up within five minutes, and those five minutes alone would have made the journey worthwhile.

The concert was a test for eyesight as well as the ears, since the programme notes showed a picture of the trio with a different pianist (Malcolm Wilson?) and BCMG bravely made it a pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth event. The group needs all the help it can get – it took a hit in 2010 when Birmingham city council cut arts funding, something it is in the process of doing all over again. This concert did not lure a vast crowd away from the shopping centre outside, but the level of concentration in the auditorium suggested that those who bothered were well glad they had.

BCMG reaches its 30th anniversary this year, three glorious decades that have seen premieres of more than 160 works and the excellent Sound Investment scheme producing some 29 hours of new music. They reckon all the performances of those commissions would take ten days of uninterrupted listening to get through. The group adds to the pile of new music on 5 March with the world premiere of Helen Grime’s piano concerto, a BCMG Sound Investment & Wigmore Hall co-commission, along with Carter, Boulez, Maxwell Davies conducted by Oliver Knussen in the CBSO Centre.

Distilling the ABO conference’s three days of solid talk into 1,000 words (page 62) is always a challenge, and if there was no room for the important things Alan Davey had to say about working together or for the heartening findings of the ABO’s updated The State of Britain’s Orchestras they are well covered elsewhere. So let’s just enjoy Darren Henley’s pithy summation of how things have changed since the last conference: ‘Last January it was all serenity, and Baz was with you playing excerpts from Finlandia and Fingal’s Cave. Within months, all expectations had been confounded. The familiar landscape disappeared. Leicester City won the premiership. And we had a referendum. And the Americans went to the polls. And then Hull emerges as one of the most exciting cities in the world. The only expected outcome was England’s dismal performance in Euro 2016.’ Who could put it better?

Truth about jazz: Sarah Barnwell
Truth about jazz: Sarah Barnwell

Caffè Vista, a wacky live music venue beside the sea in Tenby, was the venue for a CD launch and concert by the marvellous Sarah Barnwell Quartet, and while jazz violin might not be entirely on target for this magazine’s readership it is worth pointing out that along with a great evening of music-making we learnt some home truths about instrumentalists from brilliant guitarist Andy Mackenzie, who explained the essential difference between a country & western guitarist and a jazz guitarist: one plays three chords to about 5,000 people, the other plays 5,000 chords to about three people. (And if jazz violin is your thing, check out the album at www.sarahbarnwell.com).

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