Arcomis and a Concert by the London Sinfonietta

Arcomis International Brass Event, 10 – 13 October 2013

London Sinfonietta, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12 October 2013

Luciano Berio – Call – St Louis Fanfare
Harrison Birtwistle – The Silk House Tattoo
Luciano Berio – Sequenza V, for solo trombone
Witold Lutosławski – Mini Overture
James MacMillan – Adam’s Rib
Timothy Jackson – Two Haiku



It’s not often that the London Sinfonietta ventures across the Severn Bridge. Indeed, to my knowledge, the last time they did so was for another Arcomis event; the inaugural festival in 2011, which celebrated all things flute in a packed weekend of concerts, workshops, recitals, masterclasses and happenings for people of all ages. Two years later and the Cardiff-based Arcomis returned with a new theme: ‘Brass without Boundaries’. The main performance venue had shifted from the BBC Hoddinott Hall to the larger St David’s Hall (with Cardiff University and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama) but the ethos and drive remained the same, with an emphasis on top, international performers and exciting, innovative events exploring and celebrating brass instruments from every angle.

As you might guess of a festival which involves the UK’s premier contemporary music ensemble, the core of the Arcomis project is the promotion and commissioning of new music. But Arcomis’ approach is beguilingly easy-going and far from the usual up-front, ambassadorial stance of new music festivals. The hope is that the emphasis on exceptional performers and the sheer excitement they bring to their instruments will lead new audiences to discover new music through the very thrill of those sounds. Moreover, the inclusive programme spanned a wide range of music old and new across many genres, with ensembles from Superbrass to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, National Youth Jazz Orchestra to the comedic Mnozil Brass, and world-class soloists such as trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth and horn player David Pyatt. It was an impressive undertaking to say the least and one deserving of congratulation to Director Adrian Hull and his team.

I spoke with Adrian ahead of Saturday’s London Sinfonietta concert and he told me that he’d worked for over eighteen months to make this happen, and was grateful for the support of many people, including Phillippe Schartz (Principal Trumpet at BBC NOW), the BBC NOW producers and staff of St David’s Hall in particular. He described the aims of Arcomis International Events thus: ‘We come at it from a new music point of view but it can be entertaining, world-class, world quality. Part of the idea is to give a boost to all the great music that goes on in this area, in Wales and the South-West, with so much happening in London.’ He also spoke of some of the themes running through this year’s event, which quietly commemorated five, major anniversary composers – the first four of whom happen to have been linked by friendship and/or influence: Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski (birth centenaries) with Francis Poulenc and – scandalously neglected elsewhere – Paul Hindemith (fifty years since their deaths). The fifth composer, of course, is the great Luciano Berio who died a decade ago this year and who did so much to pioneer new ways to write for solo instruments. As Adrian says, ‘There are threads there but they don’t necessarily need to be in people’s faces. It also helps us to be coherent in programming and to give it a bit of variety and to give a focus on new music without it being too much.’

The London Sinfonietta concert featured works by Berio and Lutosławski alongside composers happily very much alive and kicking: Harrison Birtwistle, James MacMillan and Timothy Jackson (who also happens to be Principal Horn with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and who was present to hear his Two Haiku for brass quintet).

But before that came a foyer fanfare performed by the Arcomis Brass Quintet – one of ten fanfares specially commissioned by Arcomis; all bar one popping up at different points of the festival in the public area of the Level 3 St David’s Hall lounge (the tenth took place in the RWCMD foyer). Appropriately to the ‘Sinfonietta programme, this particular piece was Michael Zev Gordon’s Fanfare-Epitaph: Homage to Witold Lutosławski, a short, brilliant work of bright and dark contrast based on the Polish composer’s own Epitaph for oboe and piano and played here with great oomph and relish.

It proved an apt prelude to a classic ‘new music’ concert by the ‘Sinfonietta players, exploring a wide range of sonic possibilities within the loosely modernist perspective of six works written between 1966 and 1998. The line-up varied from solo instrument to full brass quintet, as in the opening Call – St Louis Fanfare (1985) by Berio. Like much of Berio’s music, the piece explores the title from a number of perspectives; musically here through the calling back and forth of hocketing trumpets and a literal calling of the players by voice into their instruments. But as a fanfare, the piece itself is a call to the audience to listen, as Berio disarmingly put it, ‘before the feast begins’. On the basis of this performance, the work is a feast in itself; full of subtle textural and tempo changes. The ceremonial ambience continued into Birtwistle’s The Silk House Tattoo (1998), a substantial work with a characteristic theatre element. Cast in four sections, two trumpeters moved around a central snare drummer in a circle; now static, now marching. The spatial aspect held a subtle acoustic and visual drama, and every tiny nuance was audible here and, indeed, throughout the concert, from rich, full-throated tones to muted pianissimo, delicate flutter-tonguing and precise, singing quarter tones.

In concerts involving a variety of instrumental line-ups, stage management often creates its own theatre as the stage is re-set between pieces – not always helpfully at that. Here, at least, the whole process was relaxed and gracefully done and the next two pieces were the highlights of the concert: Byron Fulcher’s winning performance of Berio’s Sequenza V (1966) for solo trombone and Lutosławski’s brilliant single-movement Mini Overture (1982) for quintet. Fulcher appeared in costume as Grock, the clown of Berio’s inspiration, and was effortlessly equal to the composer’s virtuoso self-described ‘theatre of vocal and instrumental gestures’, revolving pathos and humour around the single enunciated ‘why’? As for the Overture, it was stunningly performed (with a welcome pivotal role for the horn), making the most of the composer’s array of colours, contrasting articulation and precise rhythmic passages within the ebb and flow of the now building, now arrested momentum. Harmony was to the fore in MacMillan’s Adam’s Rib (1995), which opened with exquisite, dark, open chords. Here the tuba and trombone came into their own, underpinning the whole with long, held notes of a deep resonance in two richly scored Chorale sections either side of a contrasting fanfare. The Two Haiku (1997) by Jackson which closed the concert were neatly drawn and sturdily well written for the instruments, if somewhat formulaic in character, but packing much detail into a series of evocative vignettes.

Overall, the London Sinfonietta created an oasis of top-quality music-making far away – but in no sense divorced from – the shoppers in Cardiff city centre close by. And that was the point of Arcomis’ ‘Brass Without Boundaries’, which placed the ‘Sinfonietta alongside kids’ workshops and big jazz concerts as just one of many performances by exceptional players over the four days of the event. When congratulated on his achievement in pulling it all together, Adrian Hull’s modest response summed up both his own terrific enthusiasm and the buzz around the festival: ‘It’s nice that people come along and that they’re keen about it. The support has been incredible. It’s also fine if people don’t like things as well – that’s what it’s there for! Honestly, doing this session here [an open workshop performance with Mnozil Brass], when I’ve just come from the ‘Welsh College with a load of toddlers having a go on trombones, and now to the London Sinfonietta – it’s sublime!’