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75 YEARS OF THE ISCM: MANCHESTER 1998 - Raymond Deane

 

 

75 YEARS OF THE ISCM: MANCHESTER 1998

Raymond Deane

The most conspicuous attribute of the Manchester World Music Days was their nationalism. The 75th anniversary festival of the ISCM (`I' stands for `International'!) featured remarkably few soloists and performing groups from outside Britain, and seems to have been conceived primarily as a showcase for local talent. Of course, given the caliber of the talent in question, this concentration had little negative impact on the standard of overall performance yet I felt that something fundamental to the spirit of the ISCM was missing, and after a few days began to yearn for the variety that might have been introduced by giving us such splendid groups as Accroche Note or Cikada. However, we did have the Belgian Rosas Dance Company whose astonishing three-hour Just Before provided grounds for some of the heated arguments that make life worth living during these ISCM marathons. Furthermore, the performances by the Ictus Ensemble during this production of works by Reich, Xenakis, Lindberg and others were a real relevation.

The festival got off to a dodgy start with a concert by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the moderate attendance at which seemed sparse within the vast spaces of the Bridgewater Hall. Conductor Peter Maxwell Davies saw fit to introduce his Worldes Blis with something of a humble apology for having once written a piece so little in accordance with the avuncular persona he has chosen to adopt in his latter years. The second of the BBC Philharmonic's concerts took place in the Royal Northern College of Music and featured one of the worst and most self-indulgent pieces I have ever heard - at an ISCM festival or elsewhere - Jonathan Lloyd's Violin Concerto, with Ernst Kovacic as soloist vying interminably and predictably with the orchestra's guest leader (Fionnuala Hunt); I note without comment that this laboured joke was a jury selection. More interesting, and also a jury selection, was Psalm 20 by Shinuh Lee (South Korea), not the only example during the week of far-eastern composers' weird fixation on Old Testament spirituality. Manchester's famous Hall. Orchestra under Kent Nagano offered a strangely-constructed programme the first half of which amounted to a satisfying concert in itself: Ligeti's Apparitions proved it could still generate a frisson, Kaija Saariaho's sensuous Ch. .teau de l'. .me (soprano: Penelope Walmsley-Clark) continued that composer's move towards a more populist style, and Berg's Violin Concerto (soloist: Christian Tetzlaff) should have served as a composition lesson for Mr. Lloyd. There then ensued an interval which was longer than the one piece in the second half, Berio's rather aimless Ekphrasis (continuo II). The final orchestral concert, given by the BBC Symphony, culminated in Elliot Carter's Symphonia, an alarmingly volcanic thing for a composer in his mid-to-late eighties to have written. The three movements were so elaborate and so self-contained as to suggest that performing them together did them something of a disservice; however, this is probably only true for someone hearing them for the first time. The alarming thing about Simon Bainbridge's Ad Ora Incerta was that it won its composer the lucrative Grawemeyer Award, thus theoretically putting him in the same league as Ligeti and Lutoslawski (admittedly other winners have been Karel Husa and Joan Tower). This half-hour setting of poems by Primo Levi pitted an all-too-frequently inaudible mezzo-soprano (Susan Bickley) and a totally superfluous solo bassoon (Kim Walker) against a large orchestra used with intermittent skill; the overall impression was of a stodgy conglomeration without much real individuality.

The most illustrious of the homegrown ensembles was the Arditti String Quartet, a regular at WMDs throughout the globe. Their Sunday lunchtime concert in the gloriously inappropriate Pre-Raphaelite Room of the City Art Gallery featured yet another disappointment from the once-great Berio (Glosse), a featureless French violin piece (Envo. tements I by Suzanne Giraud) and two examples of the local `new complexity' in which the Arditti specialises. I must confess to being less than enthusiastic about Brian Ferneyhough, and his String Trio did nothing to alter this prejudice. Somewhere inside James Dillon, on the other hand, a real composer is clamouring for release, and there were many extraordinarily exciting moments in his Traumwerk for violin duo. (Incidentally, it's a pity that nothing by Richard Barrett was included in the festival to round out our perception of English, Scottish and Welsh `new complexity'.) The previous evening the Arditti combined with the Nash Ensemble to give us Birtwistle's lengthy Celan cycle Pulse Shadows, sung with beautiful tone but inadequate projection by Claron McFadden. This is ascetic, esoteric music, but perhaps not esoteric enough to reach the core of Paul Celan's enigmatic texts. Indeed I doubt the appropri ateness of any music to the mature Celan, who was programmatically concerned with ridding his verse of the last traces of music. Much less problematic were Harrison's Clocks premiered by the astounding Joanna MacGregor in her well-attended Bridgewater Hall piano recital. Here Birtwistle had clearly tailored his music to the exuberant and extrovert personality of the interpreter, and the result was an unqualified pleasure.

The other British ensemble deserving of special mention is Psappha, a youthful bunch to whom were entrusted two of the `golden oldies' that were highpoints of the festival. Boulez's Le marteau sans maR.tre was conducted by John Carewe who had directed the British premiere in 1959 - a nice touch. This time, Sally Bruce-Payne was the agile soloist; the ensemble played with such precision and clarity that one forgot how nearly unplayable this music once seemed. While Le marteau came across as good clean fun, Stockhausen's Kontakte revealed itself once again as one of the seminal works of the 20th century in a poker-faced but passionate performance by Richard Casey and Tim Williams (piano and percussion).

Staying with youth but moving away from the professionals, we come to one of the most controversial aspects of the 1998 WMD: the proliferation of `amateur' ensembles. At a public forum chaired by Alexander Goehr (and from which the public was conspicuously absent) any criticism of this aspect of the festival was indignantly repudiated (by Goehr, Stephen Montague and John Drummond) on the grounds that these were `student ensembles', a quite different thing, and one not to be fully appreciated by Johnny Foreigner. Undoubtedly this was a valid point, and testifies to the tremendous vitality of British musical education that has survived the ravages of Thatcherism and neo-Thatcherism, and is now battling valiantly with New Labor's post-neo-Thatcherism. However, a certain unease lingers. Many composers were disturbed to find that their jury-selected works were entrusted to student ensembles; it was feared that this would lessen the likelihood of such works being broadcast (or indeed recorded) by the BBC and would also lessen the likelihood of their being reviewed by the local or national press. Despite the reassurances of the organisers, both fears proved well-grounded and in general the media indifference to the festival was a disappointment. Most attention was paid to Stephen Montague's Horn Concerto (for an Orchestra of Automobiles), performed in the open air before the beautiful Town Hall by a dozen motorists who suggestively squirted their windscreens at the moment of climax (incidentally, Montague's Dark Sun, as performed by COMA [Contemporary Music Making for Amateurs - surely that should be COMMA?], was one of the most effective pieces in the festival. It's a shame that Montague is gaining a reputation as some kind of musical clown for all seasons.).

There is no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of student performers led to certain aberrations of programming. Some works, better left unnamed, were probably chosen for their performability rather than their quality. More specifically, Anthony Gilbert is a composer of unexceptionable modernist academicism; the presence of his works in no fewer than three concerts testified more to his status as well-loved professor of composition at the Royal Northern College of Music than to any particular distinction inherent in the music. Such local pride is admirable in itself (perhaps) but patently inappropriate to an international festival of this nature.

Nonetheless, to end on a positive note, it was a student ensemble - Chetham's Contemporary Music Ensemble - that performed what for me was the most attractive recent work in the 1998 ISCM World Music Days: Carillon for six digital keyboards by the Swede Peter Bengtson (b.1961). What seemed on paper like a clever gimmick - the progressive re-tuning of the pianos until they share a 72-degree octave - yielded music of colour, richness, and vitality. The piece lasted ten minutes and made the week worth while.

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