Huddersfield Festival 2004: Transpontine Reactions 2.

[Part One here.]

Dan Albertson

[February 2005.]

Installments two and three of the three-part retrospective of this past year’s Huddersfield Festival are made possible by BBC 3’s Hear and Now, which presented six concerts from this massive event.

Concerts 3 and 4

Unfortunately, the second volume of reviews is short. Concerts three and four — which featured music by Richard Ayres (b. 1965), James Dillon (b. 1950), Georg Friedrich Haas (b. 1953), Rebecca Saunders (b. 1967) and Klas Torstensson (b. 1951) — were mostly lost. More music was promised than available air-time permitted. I also experienced transmission difficulties with an Internet-based radio player — ah, technology! — and I also could not find enough free time to attend to the entirety, such as it was. I heard fragments of several chamber and solo pieces by Rebecca Saunders, but not enough to register any thoughts here. One piece I managed to hear in full was truly captivating: black/nebulae for two pianos (1995) by Scottish composer James Dillon, as played by Rolf Hind and Nicolas Hodges, fondly recalled from this review’s first installment. Again they played to their strengths. This is music that simply dazzles one’s ears in the variety of sheer sound heard, never overwhelming but always deeply felt.

Concert 5

On, then, to installment three. The first concert offered one piece by Rebecca Saunders and three by Richard Ayres, both featured composers at the festival. For the opening work, members of Germany’s Ensemble Recherche played a beautifully static and statuesque piece from 1998 by Rebecca Saunders for clarinet, double bass, piano and accordion. The deft choice of mostly low instruments employed in their higher registers produced a sense of timelessness with both inner substance and an attractive veneer. If I were to quibble, it would be about length: 15 minutes is by no means too long, but this duration for a work of Quartet’s sort can be a bit demanding for a less patient listener.

The remainder of the concert featured music by Cornwall-born, Netherlands-based Richard Ayres. He was first represented by No. 31 for trumpet and 13 players (1997-98, rev. 1999), one of many works in his NONcerto series. This sentence, I fear, needs two explanations. The first is that, yes, all of his works are given a number, only occasionally accompanied by a proper title. The second is that a NONcerto is, as could probably be guessed, a work with a solo player but not necessarily of the bravura type normally associated with the concerto form. This piece has been in my library for more than five years, when I first heard a broadcast of it in conjunction with the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers. The soloist then, as now, was Dutch trumpeter Marco Blaauw. This time Richard Baker led the redoubtable German group MusikFabrik. The work operates as a showcase for the trumpet, whether at the forefront or contending with the ensemble. Two lively, over-the-top movements, the first a burlesque and the latter a rhapsody, bracket an elegy for Alfred Schnittke, a moving dirge featuring simple trumpet melismas above an even simpler harp pattern.. Despite its challenges, this 20-minute adventure should be relatively easy for listeners to absorb.

Next, a disappointment, No. 33, a cantata subtitled Valentine Tregashian considers… for 16 mixed voices, organ and 16 players (2001), in eight more or less continuous movements. This vastly different monster centers on a narrative. Following the model of novelist Italo Calvino, Ayres has crafted stories for the musicians, resulting in a sort of instrumental theatre work based on the life of an imaginary artist, Valentine Tregashian. The premise and its execution are probably clearer in situ than emerging from a radio. Though imposing and occasionally rewarding, the work suffers from too many hiccups: Some 42 minutes in length, it is simply not compelling enough to remain afloat. While the voices are utilized sparingly and wisely, on the whole, they detract from the instrumentalists’ meaningful contributions rather than building upon them. Although conductor Roland Kluttig, the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, organist Jan Hage, and the players of the ASKO Ensemble, for whom it was written, have delved deeply into the music’s core, the untoward length and off-putting choral interjections left me less than impressed.

Last was another NONcerto, No. 36 for horn and 17 players (2002). ASKO’s hornist Wim Timmermans played with his bandmates, Kluttig again conducting. This is the second work to be based on the life of Valentine Tregashian, now also featuring a lady named Anna Filipiova, so again, a theatrical element which does not always present itself in radio form obtains. From what I could tell, the struggle between soloist and ensemble is engaging, with usurpations by one and then another, a game of constant vanquishing, especially in the first movement with its use of call-and-echo. I felt at times that I was listening to a hit parade: I detected motifs from No. 31 without quite understanding why. That was distracting, as were overused passages of screeching winds and rollicking brass atop a piano ostinato, an Ayres trademark. The bulk of the work’s 22 minutes is fresh and lively, but a bit too redundant. I would have preferred more evolution rather than more repetition.

Concert 6

This was a broadcast of two works by one composer. Richard Rijnvos (b. 1964) is one of the brighter lights in Holland’s post-Andriessen generation: a composer whose focus is not on popular music, but instead on instrumental color. The first work was new, receiving its third performance in only a few months. Mappamondo, scored for a baritone soloist who also speaks, a tuba soloist and an ensemble of 14 players, is based on Australian novelist James Cowan’s account of the medieval Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro. It is also the second work in Rijnvos’ series based on Venice and Her Shadows, in this case the island of San Michele, now known best as the resting place of Diaghilev, Stravinsky and other artistic luminaries, but once the home of Fra Mauro himself. I assumed the music would be rich — Rijnvos’ scores always are — and indeed, the final results are remarkably colorful, ever tempered by a joyful abundance of restraint. The baritone-speaker, Robert Rice, a comforting and steady presence throughout, is most prominent at the work’s beginning and middle. Toward the piece’s center, the tubist Tjeerd Oostendorp accompanies the baritone for a time, until the music reaches a sort of epilogue without voice, where it takes on a darker but by no means despairing tone — an homage to the late sound-world of Luigi Nono, the most recent addition to San Michele’s burial registry. Listening to the soloist, i.e., Fra Mauro, recite and sing the story of his life and his obsession with maps is almost mesmerizing, due not only to Rijnvos’ control, but also to the grandeur of Cowan’s account. The magnificence of purely verbal imagery is overwhelming, yet the composer avoids histrionics. At 35 minutes, this is a major work that Kluttig and ASKO played with appropriate tenderness and affection.

Next, a four-part cycle entitled Block Beuys, which occupied the composer from 1995 to 2000, available as hat[now]ART 147. Its four movements — the first three representing one room (Raum) in a permanent installation entitled Block Beuys at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt and the fourth four tiny rooms — span 78 minutes. Thanks to each movement’s remarkable diversity, the listener’s patience never flags. At 24:18, the first movement, a work for 11 players and tape, is etched in stone. Excepting a few minor discrepancies in intonation or dynamics, I could not decipher any difference between this performance and any others I’ve heard since the work’s premiere nearly a decade ago. It is a blissfully static environment. The second movement, for 21 players and continuum, with its occasional brass interjections, adds some tumult to the mix. On the whole, it is a more active movement, with greater rhythmic variety and all-around sonic shifting, an 18-minute demonstration of the composer’s success at tackling large-scale and consistently interesting endeavors. The third room, the shortest (14 minutes) and also the most open-ended, for 12 musicians and tape, is my favorite. There is no fixed score: The work is subtitled Aktionen, as in the actions of Beuys and other so-called Fluxus artists. Loud, tenuto trumpets lead the way to a recording of one of Beuys’ final lectures, from the mid-1980s, which the composer has only partially manipulated, so that sometimes phrases are complete and comprehensible, and at other times they are akin to gibberish. In between are quiet percussive, glasslike rattlings and other audible minutiae. Though I normally do not give much credence to works that try to combine prerecorded voice with live music, this amalgamation is so organic that one almost thinks Beuys is right there, speaking to us live, fading in and out of sanity. The final section, Raum 4 bis 7, for 21 players, depicts the four miniature rooms called Vitrinen (glass showcases) as 24 musical fragments, each one unraveling concurrent with the others, so that it is unclear when one ends and another begins. This is a return to the timbral sphere of the cycle’s opening: more subdued material, slower tempi, more low rustlings, etc. The final note is also the first one and so ends a glorious sonic cascade.

On the whole, Huddersfield impressed this listener as uneven, a not unexpected outcome from a festival that presents so much in so little time. Despite any misgivings, one hopes the good people in charge continue striving to give audiences opportunities to hear and enjoy a broad range of today’s music beyond vapid populist works sandwiched between war-horses.

[Anyone interested in Rebecca Saunders’ music should read Robert Kirzinger’s essay here. W.M.]