Last Saturday’s concert at King’s Place was a one-hour long collection of compositions by living British composers of all generations, from veterans like Anthony Payne to young talents like Joe Duddell, down to a couple of A-level music students from London.
The concert was both part of the week-long celebration of Endymion (many of the works by professional composers had been written for the occasion) and the crowning of a day of workshops for young composers doing their A-levels. Two pieces among the many workshopped throughout the day were selected for performance at the evening concert. The decision to fuse together the music of these young students and that of professional composers was an inspired one: it gave budding young talent a chance to hear their music performed by top-notch performers, while bringing the typically high-brow contemporary music audience right back down to earth.
The opening work clearly led the way in unfolding a soundworld that made one prick their ears. Christopher Fox is, oddly, as reputable a musicologist as he is a composer, and yet his A Study in Daylight eschewed academic dryness with bewildering ease. A single pitch is passed around the horn, oboe and cello—while the sharp attacks of plucked strings (harp and pizzicato cello) periodically unfold the single note into a chord. From small clusters we get to open, hollow chords. I was struck by the unaffected consistency of Fox's idiom, and the economy of his musical means—those recurring tonal chords with added notes, rich in prominent open fourths and fifths, the use of harp and cello as attacks with the composed resonance of horn or oboe, the travelling single pitches.
Philip Cashian's Concertantes provided a frenzied contrast to Fox's meditative music, offering up a handful of jagged melodic gestures in horn and clarinet, brushed against the grain by the nervous rhythmic accompaniment of viola and cello. With a quartet made up of viola, cello, horn and clarinet Cashian's organum was rather bass-heavy, and yet by contrast the clarinet had a positively shimmering quality (thanks also to Mark van de Wiel's playing) which pierced the half-shadow to great effect.
Without missing a beat, the programme moved on to Brian Elias' Impromptu, which was as grounded in high register as Concertantes was in mid-to-low register. Impromptu is a piece, Elias tells us, written from the top of one’s head. And in the best way possible, it sounds like one, too. There is something quirkily arcadian about the instrumental palette (after all, sticking to the top-end register of the harp does make for a 'lyre' timbre); and yet while the clarinet and flute are constantly engaged in a twittering birdsong, the bright, manic ostinati that pervade the harp part—here played by a fantastic Lucy Wakeford—keep the whole thing from sounding a little too 'cute.'
A-level student Robert Amissah's Lluvia shrunk the organum to violin and cello—a tricky combination to pull off. And yet his folksy melodies flowed and he knew how to quirk-up a rhythmic ostinato. There was, if anything, a slight tendency to show the seams of the music when going from one musical idea to the next—some threadbare transitions. Yet this is a common trait in many a young composer's work, and cannot possibly taint a promising start such as this one. Folk also inhabited the imagination of the other fledgling composer in the program, Sophie Mojsiejenka. Her piece, Red Shoes, was another folksy number inspired by the sinister tale by the same name, in which a vane girl's eponymous new purchase takes control of her feet and forces her to dance to her death. While the demonic undertones of the fairytale were not really present in this overall gentle number, it was a perfectly pleasant few minutes nonetheless, with a laborious cello part (to which Adrian Bradbury complied elegantly) and a beguiling klezmer clarinet melody for an opening.
A slight lack of drama also affected Simon Willis' Without Words—or, rather, without voice: this piece was once the mute aria of the lead character—a mime—of Willis’ opera The Secret Agent. But while Willis tells us that the aria is meant to express fear and anxiety, Without Words charms because of its mischievous wind writing (particularly the flute, which at times seems to literally replace the voice) and the obsessive minor third interval that haunts the score.
Anthony Payne's From a Mouthful of Air—another impromptu composition of sorts, inspired by Endymion’s birthday celebrations—was also a successful bit of music, with the strings and harp singing a drawn out melody on top of which the harmon-muted trumpet—the brilliant Bruce Knockles—provided a muttering commentary. By the end of the piece the trumpet takes off the mute and sings the melody right out, while the strings do the muttering. While the piece was a little too predictable in its workings, it redeemed itself in its unexpected mid-air ending (disguised as a new beginning in the lower register of the strings). A real treat came with Joe Duddell’s The Tree Carving: the music’s air of simplicity clearly stands for gifted craft, from the recurring harp arpeggios of the first movement to the rhythmic drive of the second and that barefaced major chord that ended the third movement.
An inspired collection of pieces, among which I would choose Fox's and Duddell's as favourites. But whatever your pick of the evening may be, it is undeniable that the whole concert brought home nothing but an irrepressible sense of delight: delight in writing music, delight in performing it, and overall, delight in hearing it.
Photos: Christopher Fox by Linda Nylind; Joe Duddell
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