Diversity of Works at Atmospheres New Music Festival 2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Alex Corlett, Ray Leung, Marianna Filippi, Amy Willock  Nathan Jones and others: Various performers, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 125.2015  (PCG)

Last year when reviewing this day-long series of performances of new music by students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama given as part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, I complained that insufficient prior information was given regarding the music that audiences could expect to hear. This year advance publicity was available for all the major events on the RWCMD website and programme of forthcoming events, and despite some overlaps in timing between various presentations I was able to attend most of the principal musical items. Unlike last year, however, there was no full-scale orchestral concert; nor was there any première of a major work on the same scale as Ben Lunn’s hour-long oratorio Bhava which so impressed the audience and critics (including myself) last year.

The major purely musical concert was a triple bill of works by Alex Corlett, Ray Leung and Marianna Filippi, all of them centred to a greater or lesser extent around a narrative element and scored for variously constituted chamber ensembles of between eight and thirteen players. Of these Corlett’s Cocaine Nights based on the novel by J G Ballard was the most extended single item, consisting of eight movements illustrating different aspects of the book although none of Ballard’s actual text was quoted. Instead the music took the form of a series of isolated cues for an imaginary film, with the featured jazz elements reminiscent of a 1950s score for a British film noir – highly effective, but really needing some sort of visual element to bind the music together. Atmospheric lighting changes helped, but the music still sounded short-breathed even in the extended final section which exploited the jazz elements to the maximum as (to quote the composer) the music “veers disconcertingly from one style to the next.” Percussionist James Colborn expertly combined his role as a player with that of conductor, and the composer himself played some well-integrated improvisations on electric guitar.

Ray Leung’s ‘piano concertino’ Raucousness and Lights similarly made use of lighting changes but these did not really serve to illuminate the composer’s programme of a metropolitan nightscape. The piano part largely consisted of percussive sounds, but achieved some splendidly sonorous effects which very much reduced the orchestral part to a sonic background. The composer’s programme note drew attention to ‘indirect musical quotations’ from Schubert, Ravel and Berg, but these totally failed to make any Impression in their context – although, since such quotations in similar works frequently draw attention to themselves to the detriment of the new music that surrounds them, this might be considered an advantage. But we were given no specific guidance in more than general terms what the composer was trying to convey in a clearly programmatically inspired work, and the whole finished very abruptly in mid-phrase with an air of almost “take it or leave it”. Sam Tse made a strong impression in the solo part.

Although Lanterns and Love Stories by Marianna Filippi was presented as a trilogy of pieces on a linked theme, they were scored for widely differing forces . The first, With love…, was a quartet for piano, cor anglais, viola and cello and was unfortunately largely undermined by differences of intonation between the piano and strings (the poor cellist had not even had time to get the ‘spike’ out of her instrument before being asked to tune).  The second piece, Glow, was scored for solo accordion (played by the composer) to a background tape of what sounded in part like synthesiser, and was delivered as an accompaniment to a cartoon story board for a film. The third piece, The Forest of Flying Lanterns, was the most substantial section here, inspired (the composer told us) by “prolific Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi,” but also showing the clear influence of early minimalism especially Philip Glass. The best performance here came from pianist Connor Fogel, lifting the rhythms infectiously and obtaining a sense of  hieratic grandeur in places.

A semi-staged performance of Amy Willock’s song cycle A peculiar tree was similarly inspired by an ecological theme, as was clear from the composer’s own lyrics. These were commendably printed in the programme, but since the auditorium was then plunged into near-total darkness the audience was denied any chance to follow them in a performance where clarity of diction was at a premium despite the use of microphones. The staging, a tree at the front of the stage, was minimal in the extreme, and despite the presence of a connecting narrative there were frequent lengthy pauses in the performance which totally dissipated any sense of dramatic impulse. Following an opening chaconne, only intermittently atmospheric, there were four songs of widely contrasting styles. After a jazz blues A peculiar tree, sung by Nneka Olkebugwu, Rhys Thomas failed to make much impact in Cascades, due in part no doubt to the fact that after the rich scoring of the previous number,  the accompaniment now was reduced to a single player at a synthesiser. The folk-like style of Song of the unnoticed, sung by Ethnie Foulkes, was not helped by an accompaniment that seemed to have little to do with the vocal line (and was reduced to taking breaths mid-phrase in some of the ,more extended passages); and Daisy Cooksley, who I understand had only seen the music for The turning of leaves on the day of the performance, showed clear and understandable signs of uncertainty in establishing her pitch from the failure of the accompaniment to provide harmonic support. In the final instrumental movement Mother Earth the upper strings were reduced to a percussive role which they played with a distinct lack of rhythmic accuracy. In the central section Dave Harris played a saxophone solo, awkwardly written for the instrument as it jumped from register to register and producing in consequence a considerable number of inelegant squawks; the reason for this interpolation remained unexplained.

Two more impressive pieces of music theatre had been heard earlier in the day. We were only given a condensed version of Till Death us do part by Nathan Jones, with a text drawn from Grimm’s The robber bridegroom  by Géraldine Smits. The style of the music started out with trenchant discords, but we were soon plunged into a Sondheim-like waltz and the atmosphere thereafter was a cross between Sweeney Todd and Into the woods. Despite the presence of microphones, the diction was too often compromised by the orchestra (placed behind the singers without the muting effect of a pit) but even so Grace-Marie Wyatt and Ally Doman in particular relished the sheer singing opportunities they were given.

After a brief interval Samuel Hoad’s one-act opera The black glove, based on a dour ‘chamber play’ by Strindberg, made less of an impression with its reduced orchestral forces; but these did at least enable the unmiked singers to get their words across, which the superb tenor Conal Bembridge-Sayers did to cutting advantage. But throughout there was again a short-breathed feeling to the music, which persistently stuttered into silence or recitative just when it was  beginning to build up a sense of emotional steam – as in the rather too obviously heralded ‘cue for aria’ for the bereaved young wife in Scene Four. This role was vibrantly taken by Jana Holesworth, who cut a real tragic figure onstage, and displayed a solidly dramatic voice of potential Wagnerian proportions. Also noteworthy was a quintet for spoken voices over an accompaniment of wood blocks, but it was a mistake to repeat the effect later at the start of a quartet which later developed more conventionally. I remember Alan Bush once telling me “if you’re going to repeat yourself, make sure the second time is more arresting than the first.”

Perhaps the most interesting of the surfeit of new music during the day was heard during  a workshop delivered by the NIEUW Ensemble from Holland, featured artists during this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, who played a number of piece by the younger students at the college. I was not able to hear all of these (the Hoad one-act opera considerably overran) but it was interesting – and surprising – to find modern composers so willing to engage with ideas of rhythm and melody. Indeed one of the players made a comment to the effect that there was a sense of fun that one would not expect to find in gloomy young Dutch composers! Most of the short pieces were scherzos of one sort or another, and most had been written specifically for this ensemble workshop. That by Bernard Bertschinger was a waltz-like piece of delicately scored neo-classicism; that by Thomas Eggensberger was more excited; and Luciano Willamson’s Scnerzo andTrio was a hectic helter-skelter with a main theme that clearly stuck in the mind of one the players so well that was whistling it on the way out – and I gather the ensemble subsequently decided to perform the piece as an encore in one of their Festival concerts. Even more surprising was the whimsically titled Dance of the forest sprites by Sam R Williams, a lively if sometimes over-scored thistledown of a piece which demonstrated that the spirit of Haydn Wood lives on in the younger generation. Best of all was Bloom by Daniel Parsons, a beautifully atmospheric piece which showed a really imaginative use of the resources of the ensemble and even managed to ensure that the reticent sound of the mandolin came through loud and clear. One looks forward to the future development of this composer with keen anticipation.


Paul Corfield Godfrey

Leave a Comment