Birtwistle Concert Review

JONNY VENVELL finds this concert makes for impressive but difficult listening.

Birtwistle classical music composer compostion concert festival polyphony review

Collecting his Ivor Novello award in 2006 Sir Harrison Birtwistle took up the mic for his acceptance speech, addressing the other winners which included James Blunt, KT Tunstall and Kaiser Chiefs: “Why is your music so fucking loud? You must be brain-dead”.

Then aged 72, it’s clear that time has done little to dampen the avant-garde fire in this composer’s belly, a trademark of the radical Manchester School he formed in the 50s.

Now to celebrate his 80th birthday the Music Faculty have just put on a three-day festival commemorating the impact his music has had on the British musical landscape. This concert, a mix of Cambridge faculty and student compositions with Birtwistle’s own, was the main student contribution to the festival.

Hasn't aged a bit

Hasn’t aged a bit

The concert began with medieval polyphony by Machaut, Ockeghem, and Dufay alongside contemporary arrangements of the pieces for chamber orchestra by Birtwistle and faculty member John Hopkins.

The King’s Men, though not finding the polish and blend we’re used to hearing in the chapel, navigated the complex rhythmic ornamentation of these early works well, directed confidently by Pat Dunachie from his 1st alto spot.

The modern works provided an interesting counterpoint to the polyphony, Birtwistle emphasising the rhythmic energy of the original material in his clockwork-like, polyrhythmic scoring and Hopkins taking a lighter, more colouristic approach.

At times the intensity of Birtwistle’s score proved too much for the players to handle who were most at home in the slower passages of Hopkins piece, decorating Dufay’s melodies with delicate string harmonics, glockenspiel and dissonant colouration.

Um, no, didn't compose this

Um, no, didn’t compose this

The concert’s highlight, in my mind, came at the end of the first half – PhD student David Roche’s Chapters. Inspired by artists and writers, the work aimed ‘to evoke a sense of bleak isolation, control, and concentration leading towards a brutal, hot ending’.

Given this basic structure, the piece’s primary interest lay in its broad palette of musical colour; whether it was the shades of diatonic harmony in the strings interrupted by windy sounds from the flute or Ravel-like couplings of harp scales with clarinet and flute flourishes.

The second half consisted of two more substantial pieces for chamber orchestra: 3rd year Alex Tay’s On Skipton Moor and Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre (1986)

Tay’s piece, beginning with pastoral birdcalls from the violins, quickly develops into a kind of pointillist exploration of instrumental sounds, musical threads that crystallise into sonic masses before dissipating again into individual parts.

After a series of aleatory episodes the piece builds to a final climax. The nebulous soundscape of contrapuntal lines and extreme dissonance called to mind the terrifying desolation of the moors, Heathcliff’s stomping ground. The final purifying glockenspiel note brought with it a sense of relief.

Well, close enough

Well, close enough

In Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre we witness an unspecified theatrical ‘ritual’ taking place between two groups of instruments: the ‘Cantus’ comprises of solo melody instruments which step up onto a raised platform at intervals to perform their musical actions. The ‘Continuum’, the rest of the ensemble, accompany the lyrical Cantus melodies with an array of interlocking repeating patterns.

Though the piece’s central idea is an interesting one, its goal could have been achieved more succinctly. The chief praise here should go to the players, particularly those in the Cantus group who dealt incredibly well with highly demanding parts throughout.

This concert was by no means easy listening; by the end I felt I had been through a gruelling experience.

As Birtwistle slowly made his way on stage to receive applause, I couldn’t help wondering if I were seeing one of the last of a dying breed of composer: grand old modernists who write music without caring ‘what anyone thinks’ and get away with swearing at celebrities.

3 stars