Comment: November concerts came and went

It was an intensive month with the two concerts of Northern Sinfonia and everything that surrounded them.

15 November at The Sage Gateshead
This was a most rewarding occasion. The concert was part of a series I run, in my capacity as senior lecturer in composition at Newcastle University, in partnership with Martyn Harry of Durham University and, of course, our friends at The Sage Gateshead.

Baldur Brönnimann, the young Swiss conductor, was impressively well prepared for the rehearsals, and was evidently committed to understanding the works and offering a good rendition of them. He not only ensured that the notes were accurately placed, but he also engaged with character and expression, which is more than we often get in performances of new music. How reassuring to feel that for the person in charge the new works were not a bothersome distraction from his real job of conducting classical masterpieces, but a central part of what he does. Brönnimann and his band were outstanding in approaching sensitively the two student pieces, Reverberations by Matthew Rowan and Ramses by Kelcey Swain, and in tackling the two hardest challenges of the evening, my Peregrine and Barry's From the Intelligence Park, a hair-raisingly difficult piece to play. It was exhilarating to witness the conductor's pacing of Peregrine, gradually gathering momentum towards and effective dénouement, and their fearless plunging into the angular ensemble unisons of From the Intelligence Park.

Before the concert, there was a public conversation with Gerald Barry, a wonderful composer and a most engaging speaker. He was our guest composer for this venture. Simon Clugston, the programme director for classical music at The Sage, and I, co-interviewed Gerald, and the interviewee expressed himself with unpretentious wisdom and arresting candour on topics of new music and creative work. He was scathing about electroacoustic music ("most of it is crap") and about Sibelius users, particularly those composers who let the programme generate material for them by the simple expedient of repetition. He was dismissive of those who expect all the words in opera to be heard and understood; if you want to hear all the words, Barry said, you don't waste your time going to the opera; you go to see a play. Most disarmingly, in response to a quote from a Toronto newspaper likening his music to the "hysteria associated with systems under stress" Barry claimed that he was softening now, and was trying to come up with "music I could play over breakfast". The audience, made up mostly of students from the two universities, was clearly transfixed to be hearing so refreshingly frank views expressed with such verve.

19 November at Huddersfield Town Hall
Attendance was sparse at the Town Hall, which made me wonder how many of Northern Sinfonia's loyal audience were aware of the event - or, for that matter, how many of the new music scholars at the universities of Newcastle, Huddersfield or Manchester. I immediately regretted not having drummed up more support from my Tyneside constituency, although the heart sinks at the thought of always having to act as your own publicity agent. But goodness knows that Sinfonia's committed performances of Ligeti and of the two new pieces would have merited wider exposure. Once more I had occasion to admire the excellence of this ensemble and in particular some of its individual players. Richard Martin, the first trumpet, dazzled again with his superb tone control, clear tonguing and sensitive phrasing. John Casken's new work benefited from the participation of two outstanding soloists, the viola player Ruth Killius and the magnificent soprano Patricia Rozario, who delved into the convolutions of Casken's musical thinking with panache and suberb musicianship.

The audience, although small, responded with warmth and, at times, audible enthusiasm. I had come to the concert with some trepidation about my own Mystical Dances, a work that marks a fresh departure in a number of respects, largely to do with writing fewer notes and clearer harmonies than hitherto. I also allowed melody to reign supreme, which was perhaps not calculated to endear myself at the holy temple of the avant garde at Huddersfield. I stand by what I wrote, although, as always in the past, I reserve the right to make corrections after the première. In particular I intend to re-write the third movement, which at it stands fails to hang together. The ceaseless flow of melody comes across as an overflow, and the internal logic that binds the various melodies to each other and to the preceding movements is not sufficiently evident to the naked ear. I'll address these issues before the next performance, which should be sometime in 2007 at The Sage Gateshead.

As to the press's responses, I was aware of two. The Guardian's reviewer must have been with his mind elsewhere to brush off the two premières as airily as he did, mine with the double-edged compliment "rather cinematic". The Independent's critic did better, engaging seriously with Casken's work. She did not deign to mention mine, but I thought I read an oblique allusion between the lines. If this were true, I can't say I totally disagree, in the light of the comments I make above. But I wish the press were braver when faced with the new, instead of circumventing it to devote yet more space to the grand established figures who are now beyond criticism.

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