Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's Sir Harrison Birtwistle 85th birthday concert


by Christopher Morley

Some years ago I was reviewing one of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's well-planned concerts at the CBSO Centre in Berkley Street. Doubtless there were one or two "Sound Investment" commissions in the programme, and the whole impression was one of worthy, well-crafted works, a couple of which might make it through to further performances.
But then there came a composition which stood proudly head and shoulders above its companions, a work of stature and immense personality, and one which had already stood the test of time. This was Silbury Air, by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and what an invigorating breath of air it provided that evening.
And BCMG launches its new season in Birmingham on September 22 with a concert celebrating Birtwistle's 85th birthday. The featured works exemplify the composer's interest in the natural world, with The Woman and the Hare (from 1999), Three Songs from the Holy Forest (2017) and the world premiere of a new "Sound Investment" commission, ... When Falling Asleep...
Stephan Meier, BCMG's artistic director, speaks proudly of the organisation's links with one of this country's greatest and most venerable living composers.
"He's unbothered by either his fame or any other circumstance (rehearsal scheme, conductor or soloist, waiting or not waiting) in his musical search for sound, thought or idea. He's open also to possible failure - in my mind one reason for the admirable continuity of quality right through to his most recent work, and speaking in these terms, he's certainly on the Olympic winner's podium!
"Five years ago, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Harry had been invited to Hannover to celebrate "Sir Harry's Songs", the resulting CD of the same name drawing international attention in 2015.
"A couple of months later, Harry came back to me, asking whether we were interested in commissioning one or two new songs -- remarkable in times when everybody was chasing him for a commission!
"Of course I immediately accepted. When it came to the first performance of "Dear dusty Moth" by Das Neue Ensemble in May 2017 at the Cologne Philharmonie, I already had signed my contract with BCMG, and started my job in Birmingham; the UK premiere in Aldeburgh was played by BCMG June 2017.
"By that time, Harry had been made aware, that one of my priorities for BCMG would be commissioning him, so the bet back was to not let him go without allowing for that, and for a companion piece for The Woman and the Hare."
BCMG oboist Melinda Maxwell performs Birtwistle's Pulse Sampler with percussionist Julian Warburton in a pre-concert taster at 4.30pm, along with offerings from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's young NEXT musicians. She tells me about her impressions and memories of Sir Harrison.
"I've worked with Birtwistle in various capacities since the 1970s at the National Theatre in London, many concerts with the London Sinfonietta with Birtwistle premieres, and with pieces he has written for me, including Pulse Sampler.
"Harry (as he's known) has been an extraordinary force in British new music. In musical terms he knows what he wants and how to get it. He can be forceful but also extremely funny and sometimes in rehearsals when there's something particularly difficult to play he'll say something that cuts any tension. He was a player himself and so he understands what players need and will give them space 'to get on with it'. He sometimes asks 'have you got a good reed Melly?' with a twinkle in his eye, knowing full well that I'd better have 'a good one'. I have enjoyed every minute of working with him because I love his music and look forward to many more experiences."
Where would Melinda Maxwell put Birtwistle in the pantheon of contemporary composers?
"High up. His music is radical, new, full of theatre and dramatic power. His vast collection of music from solo, chamber, orchestral to opera includes many pieces that are now considered masterpieces in their own right. One for example is the chamber ensemble piece Silbury Air. His music is played worldwide and is very much part of the wider catalogue of international contemporary music.
"I'm so very excited about hearing the new commissioned piece for BCMG. This is a great honour for us and I'm looking forward to our first rehearsal of it. It's also wonderful that he will be with us as we can develop a lively rapport around the interpretation of what he has written. This process is unique and one of the joys of working and playing in a wonderful contemporary music ensemble such as Birmingham Contemporary Music Group."
*Birmingham Contemporary Music Group celebrates "Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85" on Sunday September 22 (6pm at the CBSO Centre, Berkley Street, with a pre-concert taster at 4.30pm). Details on 0121 616 2616.

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