The Rambler :: blog

Monday, November 01, 2004

Birtwistle Games, South Bank Centre 

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[Festival still ongoing, more details here]

Birtwistle, Scelsi, Feldman, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28/10/04, London Sinfonietta

And thus London's official celebration for the 70th birthday of our leading composer begins. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is hardly a large venue, but even so it's at least a third empty. For the opening concert of a 3-week-long festival, this is quite a low-key programme – the big crowd puller was on Sunday with Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Antiphonies alongside Earth Dances. There's also a feeling that perhaps, in this anniversary year, we are becoming a little Birtwistled-out; and of course there's the simple fact that for 40 years Birtwistle has long drawn disfavour from audiences who think this is still the 1940s, or cannot forgive him for blowing an exuberant 30-minute raspberry at the establishment with the Proms commission Panic.

For all that he sticks in the craw of the English musical mass, Birtwistle's music has always sounded English to me. It's something to do with its harsh verticality – a memory of flint. Granite in November rain. His genius has been to meld this with pagan ritual, extending Stonehenge and the Saxon barrow back to ancient Greece, singing it through the interlocking pulse patterns of change ringing or grandfather clocks in hallways. Tonight the Sinfonietta make the second half of that formula click, but at times they step back from the edginess. My companion - who knows the piece better than I - describes Silbury Air as 'flat'. It sounds too timid perhaps - drifting into that picture postcard image of England. Vaughan Williams, not Walton. Secret Theatre is better, although I'm not convinced by Birtwistle's composed stage management - here or in Ritual Fragment, which opens the concert. In other pieces - such as The Silk House Tattoo - this works well, but here I found the movements of players in and out of the orchestra more distracting than enlightening, and in Ritual Fragment especially all too predictable.

Of the other two pieces, Scelsi's Kya was disappointing. It started well, gently evolving strands of sound, but revealed itself, inexplicably, as a three-movement work – the second two of which introduced a soloistic clarinet part, but felt more indistinguished because of it. Feldman's The Viola in My Life II was, well, wonderful. It's a very hard trick to fill a musical space with such small ensembles - especially when you give them so few notes to use as Feldman does - but Feldman manages it by working with the grain of the instruments, never against it. This is most obvious in the viola writing, which is so spare that it allows its performer (Paul Silverthorne on this occasion) to invest it with maximum lyricism, naturally filling that space with secure, rich tone. We'll probably never see the day when Feldman gains the mass acceptance of Tavener or Górecki, but with works like this it remains a mystery why not.

Birtwistle, big band jazz, Royal Festival Hall, 31/10/04, Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra and Big Band

It strikes me, while waiting for the concert to start (jazz first, then Birtwistle), that Panic is beginning to take on a role as an establishment football. And not just in relation to The Establishment, the outraged flag-waving Prommers who protested Panic's appearance on their Albert Hall turf in 1995. Because, for all the work's shortcomings, it also represented a tremendous victory for the modernist establishment. There was one of our lot, cocking a snook at all the fuddy-duddies in their Union Flag bowler hats.

The marvellous thing about the piece itself is that it's so comprehensively divisive. Simply as a result of that Proms performance, you have to have an opinion on it. And for those that believe people should be listening to Birtwistle (they should be, but Panic is certainly not the place to start) it has become a symbol of unity, the means to bring together the opposing groups under a common musical banner. This was the thinking behind programming it on the Last Night, alongside Jerusalem, and Pomp and Circumstance.

But it didn't work then, because its very nature is aggressively divisive. It is a literally shattering composition; time and again knots of energy are built up and exploded into shards of noise. This evening's programme is another attempt to reconcile the definitively non-establishment Panic with another realm - this time the big band jazz of Stan Kenton and Lester Young. At first I thought it might work. From a distance it looked like a wickedly brave bit of programming, and it drew in a curious crowd - with the obligatory 'I've been cheated' walkouts five minutes into Harrison's explosions. Of course against the warm string sounds of a Promenade concert, Panic sticks out; with 15 minutes to tune our eyes into the particular sound world of brass and percussion, perhaps it would seem less of a shock.

I'm happily surprised to report that it was not so. Although an initially weak wind orchestra sound took some of the snap out of the gear-change, the Birtwistle still sounded as uncomfortable and discomforting as ever, and gained momentum throughout. The two soloists – Rob Buckland and Ben Grey did particularly well; Grey, who had also drummed for the big band set, looked much more in his element here, and as pivot between the two ensembles in part justified the programming. Ironically, the Birtwistle gave him much more opportunity to swing, and at points his playing was nonchalantly and pleasingly louche.

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