In his introduction to the programme, conductor James Weeks describes Howard Skempton’s music as being 'magical' and 'revelatory' – a statement that very well could be applied to this concert. Drawing on the musical talent of BCMG and EXAUDI, the programme included two world premieres and a collection of Skempton's choral works. The second half was performed without interruption, allowing for a continuous flow from piece to piece.
The concert began with the premiere of Only the Sound Remains, a work unique in Skempton's portfolio due to the size of its instrumental forces and its prolonged length. The piece exemplified the gentleness and aural clarity characteristic of Skempton's other works, with an organic touch that resulted in a feeling of musical free-association and the path of a contemplative mind. Scored for solo viola and chamber ensemble, the increased scope of the work allowed for a relaxed exploration of timbre as ostensibly simple melodies intertwined and evolved. Particularly effective was the inclusion of a guitar in the ensemble, allowing for exquisite interplay between it and the piano and harp. The role of the solo viola was intriguing in its malleability; a prominent line would often fade into the accompanying texture or emerge without warning. The members of BCMG performed it well, especially the softer, tenderer moments. While there were slight intonation issues at times, it was a successful performance overall.
The second premiere of the evening was Charlie Usher's Slow pan, so named in reference to the respective film technique. While outwardly busier than the preceding work, the underlying theme of the piece was the gradual transition from action to stillness, sound to silence. This shifting of musical focus led the listener around the smaller ensemble, exposing their individuality and uniqueness. The piece was well executed by all members, and provided a good sense of balance to the preceding work.
After the interval the vocal ensemble EXAUDI performed an un-interrupted collage of selected choral works by Skempton, punctuated by solo cello and guitar interludes. EXAUDI was in full form, maintaining a fine balance between technical accuracy and expressiveness. The pieces themselves, most of which have been recorded by the ensemble in the NMC disc Ben Somewhen, have an addictive, hypnotic feel, while maintaining a sense of clarity and line at the same time. Throughout many of them was a pulsing, irregular rhythmic idea, vaguely reminiscent of medieval polyphony. Especially well performed was the 2002 piece Rise up, my Love, a musical setting of the biblical Song of Solomon. The two instrumental interludes acted as explorations of solitude, contrasting nicely with the ensemble works around them. Each had a specific character; the cello stoic and austere with the guitar more intimate and reflective. Both were excellently performed.
While post-concert receptions for premieres are fairly common, the one following this event was unique in that the composer was encouraged, successfully, into bringing his accordion along. The remaining audience was treated to a trio of small pieces for solo accordion. It was touching to see Skempton perform his music for friends, patrons, students, and admirers, and provided a poignant close to a wonderful portrait concert.
BCMG and EXAUDI should be commended for the production of such a fine concert.
By Murphy McCaleb.
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