Thursday 8 September 2011

The joy and pain of contemporary classical music

At first, a confession. I love contemporary classical music. I enjoy the experimentation, the desire to innovate new sounds, and the willingness of many composers to cross-fertilise different types of music.

At the Vale of Glamorgan festival, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales aimed to undertake exactly this, to experiment with novel sounds and to wow its audience with music never heard before. The part before the interval achieved this aim with excellence. Some contemporary music lives and dies by accuracy. If you ever listened to Karajan directing the Berlin Philharmonics playing Schoenberg you know what I mean.

Yet, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales accomplished no mean feast too last night. Under Thierry Fischer its playing has become far more disciplined and last night, directed by Jean Michael Lavoie, the initial piece evoked all human emotions. It was delivered with grace, excitement and excellent precision. It was simply a joy to listen to it. Qigang Chen's piece demonstrated what miracles of sound contemporary music can produce and the richness of the piece was rendered beautifully by the orchestra.

While John Metcalf's Mobiles for Soprano Saxophone was pleasing and funny at times, Mark Bowden's piece, though it seemed popular with the audience, has its problems. For large sections, it was not entirely clear why the cello was made the solo instrument, as it struggled to develop a unique sound or even be heard above the orchestral sound. This was neither the fault of the soloist nor of the director. Both clearly showed a remarkable rapport and, where the piece allowed it, Oliver Coates showed off his extraordinary soloist skills.

However, this was only the prelude to a singular disappointment that perhaps can only happen in contemporary music. Steve Reich's City Life was painful to listen to with its complete lack of imagination and nuance. During the first twenty minutes, monotonous rhythms were repeated over and over again, without significant development. For large parts, the music was simply dull. One reason may have been the lack of variation in the volume level, crescendos were absent, and the faint semblances of techno rhythms contributed to an impoverished sound, rather than to enrich it. This is saddening since modern music has much to offer, from jungle to drum and bass all the way to jazz. However, Reich failed to draw imaginatively on those traditions. The result was a mix of repetitive electronic sounds that quickly started to bore.

Yet. if it is right that the price of experimentation is occasional failure then this event was still a full success. The BBC orchestra played wonderfully and the Hoddinott Hall is still a joy to behold. The acoustics in this hall are light years ahead of the drab and muddled sound in St Davids Hall and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its guest director took full advantage of this.

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