Huddersfield Festival 2004: Transpontine Reactions 1.

Dan Albertson

[January 2005.]

Festivals seem de rigueur these days — as omnipresent as Mozart on an American orchestra’s season schedule. For the most part, I have never found an entirely satisfactory outcome to the notion of uniting a variety of musicians in concerts spanning days or weeks. Inevitably, the content’s quality fluctuates to such a degree that some works seem worse than they actually are while lesser pieces ride the wave of a preceding success. What does a festival say that as little as two or three all-quality concerts couldn’t say more convincingly? A matter of finances, I suppose: It’s easier to fund such events en masse.

BBC 3 and its new music program Hear and Now aired six shows from the latest installment of one of New Music’s most hallowed galas, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, one per week. This reduces the risk of listener fatigue — a blessing in disguise, as much of the music did not impress, even in small segments.

Concert 1

The first concert featured music performed by the Smith Quartet and the duo pianists Rolf Hind and Nicolas Hodges. First to air was a piece by Graham Fitkin (b. 1963), one of the UK’s many composers to have studied with Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Servant, from 1992, is rather inexpressive. The music carries on for nearly 13 minutes, but never did I really sense that it had enough substance to warrant its length. Toward the middle, a beautiful, almost soaring cello motif led me to hope, in vain, that it would recur. It did not, with the weaker surrounding material repeating itself, slightly varied, but never in a wholly enticing manner. Energetic and vigorous at times, but a disappointment.

BBC then inserted one of the Hind-Hodges duo’s performances, a 30-year-old work by the composer and pianist Michael Finnissy (b. 1946). Wild Flowers is inspired by a William Blake poem — though that is not important. The work is less than ten minutes long and seems shorter. Although I would not classify it as one of Finnissy’s essential pieces, it is thoroughly well-composed: The pianos act as separate identities almost exclusively, so much so that at times one piano would have sufficed. This weaving of texture between four capable hands achieves a great effect. The forceful conclusion left me wishing for more.

Next, the world premiere of a BBC-commissioned piece, String Quartet No. 9 (!) by South African-born, Ireland-based Kevin Volans (b. 1949). The Smith Quartet has a long history with Volans. It was this medium which brought him to international attention nearly 20 years ago, with his first quartet, White Man Sleeps (see review below). The intervening eight quartets have not lived up to the promise of that work. This latest is pleasant enough, with sweeping melodies alternating with some hard-edged rhythmic passages, but it leaves no lasting impression, even after three listenings. Greater differentiation — or contrast or tension — could have worked wonders. As it now stands, it’s indistinguishable from a great many other contemporary works.

The Smiths appeared again in a 2001 string quartet by the Britisher Howard Skempton (b. 1947), noted primarily for his hundreds of miniatures ranging from orchestral music to songs to accordion and piano solos. Catch is miniaturist (or minimalist?) in scope — its base of material is quite limited — and rather lifeless. As a composer noted for short, stark, occasionally witty statements, Catch lasts too long for its own good. Its gentle, graceful gestures, poetic and occasionally profound, would make a greater impact if the work were shorter. Brevity is beauty, as Skempton no doubt knows.

The duo pianists returned for 1997’s Unendlicher Empfang (Unending Reception or Approval, I suppose, but it is much more meaningful in German) by Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932). Nørgård is famous for his so-called infinity series, music based on as little as two notes, continuously extendable. Whether the piece comes from this particular concept I do not know. Empfang is perhaps slightly long, nearly 17 minutes, but it grabbed my attention early on. In its intense introversion and gradual unfurling of mildly melancholy yet optimistic harmonies, it is a moving statement on flow and ambiguity, the two pianists ever in flux. I would love to hear it again.

Closing this first BBC broadcast was another of the nine quartets by Kevin Volans, this one the Second, subtitled Hunting: Gathering, from 1987. The Smith Quartet played it with conviction. The quartet obviously knows the piece well, but like the Ninth, I found this taxing music difficult to isolate from a myriad of similar-sounding quartets. The slackening and heightening of discourse here is emphatic, perhaps more so than in the Ninth Quartet, but the music remains rather two-dimensional. The piece knows its path and follows it, presumably well, the stops along the way of greater interest than the whole. I especially liked some motifs toward the end, although by that point, the music was already 20 minutes underway. A jubilant finale is not enough to earn it a recommendation.

Concert 2

BBC’s second broadcast from Huddersfield 2004 began again with Kevin Volans. This time it was his best-known work, the first string quartet, White Man Sleeps, written in the mid-1980s. This is music featuring a rich palette and demanding no less a broad spectrum of instrumental virtuosity. However, more than a decade after I first heard it, I find that its appeal has faded somewhat. I savor the lyricism among its five sections, but hear the rhythmically frenzied moments as overdone. This is not the Smiths’ fault, of course, nor is it Volans’, to a certain degree, as the work needs to be a vital, purposeful response to African music. I merely found too much emphasis on prolonged rhythm and was disappointed by a relative absence of advancing melodic material.

… And now for something completely different: the Norwegian trio Poing (saxophone, double bass and accordion, occasionally with some or all of the members also adding live electronics). The group, less than five years old, has already gained a reputation in its native Scandinavia and elsewhere in mainland Europe. The piece performed is by countrywoman Maja Ratkje (b. 1973), one of the brighter lights in Norway’s thriving generation of composers born in the ’60s and ’70s. Her work is eclectic and unpredictable, and for these reasons Essential Extensions, which Poing describes in a BBC interview as a piece they memorized due to its many performances, was a surprise. Even after several hearings, I am not sure what to say about it. It is static and deliberate, at times maddening in its calm, and at other moments, transfixing. Despite its relatively eventless evolution, I found its approach both conventional and occasionally daring. Volans cloys; Ratkje is more modest.

Back to the Smiths for another work by Howard Skempton, a world premiere co-commissioned by BBC and Huddersfield. Sad to report, he scores a perfect two: Both works are letdowns. Tendrils, twice as long as Catch, is even less satisfying. Listening to it for a third time, I could not help but wonder, Am I missing something? Are my ears not working? The music, like the recent Volans quartets, is decent enough but with no inner charm. I felt no desire to explore its quiet, subdued soundworld or even to return to it, though I did. A vacuous piece with a mostly jolly nature, it isn’t likely to upset regular concert-goers.

Next, another work for Poing by Maja Ratkje, mysteriously entitled Rondo — Bastard — Overture — Explosion. Whether the headings are programmatic or indeed divide the work into four sections, I cannot say. If Essential Extensions befuddled me, this is the enigma to end all enigmas. There must be some sort of pre-recorded element, as distant voices occasionally cry out from nowhere. The unsettling effect is used with enough economy to allay tedium. One hears loud gestures from one instrument, then another and another, like waves cresting and subsiding. As with Extensions, the music lacks direction. This is not necessarily a criticism, merely an attempt to classify my bewilderment. Though the overall result is difficult to absorb, I admire its daring. At more than 17 minutes long, it progresses leisurely enough to welcome listeners aboard. The train derails, only to regain its footing: a roller coaster and train wreck, thrilling enough to recommend.

Another string quartet from the ’80s (yikes!) closed this program. Different Trains by Steve Reich pits a live string quartet against a recorded string quartet, while voices — live or recorded? — call out numbers, each apparently signifying a train. The music is typically Reichian — propulsive, slowly unfolding, ingratiating and/or stultifying. Although his music from the early ’80s onward has seemed comparatively hollow, Different Trains stands out, perhaps because of the composer’s personal history. The different trains of the title allude to the composer’s New York childhood. Reich loved to ride trains. Only later in life did he comprehend the significance of train rides by other Jews. The piece is emotional, naturally, but never maudlin or aggressively sentimental. If one didn’t know better, it could simply be taken as a response to life’s vagaries, the vibrant strings repeatedly dampened by the somber utterance of another number. The tape layer and its stunning interplay with the live quartet are keys to the work’s success, though via broadcast it is difficult to discern which quartet is which. This is perhaps not Reich’s best score, but the Smith Quartet — or I should say the Smiths live and taped — play it with verve and suitable dignity.

These first two Huddersfield concerts left me with mixed reactions. I’m curious to see what future installments hold. [Part Two here.]

[BBC Radio’s Hear and Now makes its most recent broadcast available on the Internet at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/hearandnow/. G.C.C.]