BCMG Brian Ferneyhough Day


Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire *****
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's well-attended Brian Ferneyhough Day celebrating the Coventry-born composer's 75th birthday made the most of the brilliant facilities of the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire building, worlds apart from the offer available at the Birmingham School of Music when he was a student there during the early 1960s.
A conversation with Howard Skempton (a composer whose style is spectacularly simple in comparison with Ferneyhough's comprehensively annotated textures) was followed by the first of two afternoon concerts, during which the birthday-boy was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Birmingham City University.
The second concert featured the full panoply of BCMG, partnered by NEXT Musicians (students selected to participate in a unique coaching scheme organised by BCMG and RBC), and conducted by the persuasive and personable Emilio Pomarico.
They were joined by the renowned Arditti Quartet for Ferneyhough's searching Funerailles I and II, works in which explorations of attack and articulation become ends in themselves, though melodic gestures do audibly emerge, building some beautiful resonances. Towards the end of the first Funeraille the harp gradually comes into prominence, playing a major and colourful part in the second.
Preceding this was Chute d'Icare, Ferneyhough's vivid response to Bruegel the Elder's luminous painting of the Fall of Icarus. There are many pictorial elements here, with Icarus' heroic if misguided travails mirrored in the complexity and gradual disintegration of a virtuoso concertante clarinet (here the brilliant and modest Oliver Janes). Wittily, ironically, this enthralling piece ends on a tiny upward flourish from the soloist.
Charlotte Bray's Beneath the Dawn Horizon, inspired by a Norfolk winter sunrise, transformed jagged outlines into spiky regeneration, with many solo reveries along the way. Michael Wolters' Trauerkonzert was colourful in its explorations both of timbres and of visual theatrical effects, though some of what the ;programme-note promised us failed to come off.
And perhaps the most spectacular success of the afternoon was Jonathan Harvey's Scena, Irvine Arditti supremely assured in the various violin cadenzas interspersed by long, sonorous orchestral decays. Flute and clarinet enter with half-remembered subconscious references to other musics, and the whole effect of this rewarding piece was that it sounded bigger than the sum of its parts.
Christopher Morley

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