Sinfonia Newydd: A Percussion Explosion

Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 20 February 2014

Mark David Boden – Urban Loops
Ed Scolding – Thrown
Ray Leung – Totem
Yfat Soul Zisso – Go!
Nathan James Dearden – Friction
Gabriel Prokofiev – Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra

Soloist: Joby Burgess
Conductor: James Southall

Sinfonia Newydd
Photo by Holly Evans

Across the UK, initiatives abound to find new audiences for the diverse kinds of music that are often lumped together in record shops as ‘contemporary classical’ or ‘new music’. Such descriptors can be vague and confusing for composers and listeners alike, but attempts to categorise different types of new music often end up missing the point; ‘indie-classical’ being one of the more contrived tags of recent years. For most composers, getting their works performed is difficult enough without having to run the twin marketing gauntlets of genre and niche. For young or less well-known composers, it can be nigh-on impossible. So it is refreshing to see a fledgling ‘new music’ group in Cardiff – to stick with the catch-all phrase – which does not describe itself in fancy, hip-sounding terms. Sinfonia Newydd is a ‘commissioning, training, performance and promotion platform for Wales’ young emerging music creators’. It may not make for snappy headlines, but hurray for the simple inclusivity of that statement, and for Sinfonia Newydd’s ambition.

Based at the RWCMD, the Dora Stoutzker Hall made a fitting venue for the ensemble’s professional launch following it’s official inception nearly a year ago; actually the culmination of several years’ work that has already seen an impressive 36 young composers commissioned and nearly 100 works showcased through various festivals and other events. This evening was a part collaboration between Sinfonia Newydd and the East London club-night and record label Nonclassical. Whether this particular moniker is here to stay remains to be seen, but ten years after composer Gabriel Prokofiev adopted the name in antithesis to stifling classical concert traditions (and, yes, he is related to ‘that’ Prokofiev – he’s a grandson), Nonclassical has become distinctly trendy. Offshoots are popping up at venues across the UK and Europe, at which classical music is presented, mixed and re-mixed as if it were rock or electronic music.

However, aside from Prokofiev’s DJ sets in the RWCMD foyer at points in the evening, this was a regular new music concert with an emphasis on Welsh or Wales-based composers. The theme for the evening was ‘A Percussion Explosion’, perhaps inspired by Nonclassical’s recent ‘Pioneers of Percussion’ festival. Here in Cardiff, a chamber orchestra/ensemble of mostly young musicians gathered on stage under talented Music Director and conductor James Southall to play six works: four world premieres by past or present Cardiff students (two from the RWCMD, two from Cardiff University), flanked by the world premiere of a Tŷ Cerdd commission for Sinfonia Newydd’s Associate Artist, Mark David Boden (graduate and now staff-member of RWCMD), and the Welsh premiere of Prokofiev’s Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra.

This last piece was given top billing, with the solo part performed by brilliant percussionist and Nonclassical mainstay artist, Joby Burgess (who also played timps in Boden’s piece). Cast in four movements, Prokofiev’s Concerto is a surprisingly conventional piece, exploring the timbral possibilities of the bass drum’s skin and rim, and combining these sounds with the orchestra to create different moods. I’m not sure why it should be news that the bass drum is capable of sonic variety, and Prokofiev’s effects felt somewhat stock-in-trade in percussion terms. Nonetheless, he generated a colourful palette, eschewing the instrument’s more obvious rhythmic connotations despite his programme note’s reference to the ubiquity of the kick-drum in everyday life.

Boden’s Urban Loops, which opened the programme, was ostensibly inspired by the distinctly un-four-to-the-floor style that is drum and bass, although the piece had greater contrast and less unrelenting speed than this might suggest. Alternately boppy and dreamy material was explored in swirling layers, with occasional explosive punctuations from the five solo percussionists which were wont to overwhelm the orchestra. The piece – like the Prokofiev – would benefit from editing, but was largely effective in its building of discrete sections, and it, too, went down very well with the audience.

For the most part, the contrasting of sectional blocks seemed the preferred formal design of the evening, with less emphasis on, say, motivic development. Ray Leung’s piece was perhaps the most intriguing exception, and his Totem was short and nicely atmospheric, having been inspired by a novel about wolves. Coincidentally, the work shared stylistic characteristics with Ed Scolding’s Thrown, an engaging piece based on echo delays (both pieces also featured an unwinding oboe theme). Nathan James Dearden’s Friction was soundly conceived in its pitching of swooping strings against jazzier, repeated figures.

Each of the four ‘inner’ pieces showed the promise of their respective composers. But the highlight of the evening was Go! by Yfat Soul Zisso. This piece showed real character and sensitivity to orchestral voicing in its simple structure, alternating stasis and movement. A succession of well-constructed and nicely ‘heard’ chords explored elements of the harmonic series and, ironically, Zisso’s microtones illicited some of the best tuning from the ensemble’s strings all evening.

Overall, this was a highly entertaining concert, and the audience greeted the bold – but entirely achievable – programme with enthusiasm. The main area Sinfonia Newydd will need to address going forward is that Southall’s players were clearly very willing, but not always as characterful, alert to ensemble – or even as accurate – as one would like. This might seem a tough observation for what was effectively the inaugural concert of a fledgling group with barely two pennies to rub together. But new pieces can stand or fall by how they are performed – and the energy and potential is there for Sinfonia Newydd to go places if performance standards can be made a priority. Of course that means further financial support will be needed specifically to fund players and rehearsals. Sinfonia Newydd, and the many diverse young composers whom they are so admirably promoting, are thoroughly deserving of the decent shot at success that could provide.

Banner photograph by Sinfonia Newydd Photographer in Residence, Alex Vann