Steph Power visited the Vale of Glamorgan Festival to witness four concerts that highlight the diversity of musical talent across Europe.
Champagne Gala Evening, 9 May, St Donats Art Centre
Fidelio Trio, 10 May, Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
Onix Ensemble, 10 May, Holy Cross Church, Cowbridge
St Christopher Chamber Orchestra, 11 May, Urdd Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
The Vale of Glamorgan Festival was founded in 1969 by composer John Metcalf and, since 1992, has focused exclusively on the music of living composers, making it one of the very few festivals in the UK to do so. Over the years, it has established an international reputation for the quality and diversity of its performances and its refusal to shy away from the path less beaten, programming established major composers alongside emerging and lesser-known voices, with an emphasis on celebration and discovery. The idea is for ‘Featured Composers’ to be present and available to audiences through various means; of course, through performances of their music, but also through interviews and discussion, profiles and contextual exploration.
This years festival is no exception; whilst there may be no ‘superstar’ presence of the likes of Philip Glass or Arvo Pärt – both visitors in recent years – nonetheless, the two composers featured this year are highly successful and well respected figures: Graham Fitkin is flourishing as a composer of vital and energetic music across a range of platforms from dance to multiple pianos via small ensemble, orchestra and multimedia. In 2013, he celebrates his 50th birthday with a second appearance at the Vale Festival following an acclaimed visit in 1997. Sebastian Currier is less well-known in the UK (despite having been performed at London’s Barbican Centre), but has won plaudits in Europe as well as his native USA, from where he too composes across a range of different platforms. His many prestigious awards include the Grawemeyer Award in 2007 for Static, given its UK premiere here at the Vale Festival’s opening Gala Evening at St Donats Art Centre (9th May).
The event began with introductions and a snap-shot of other things to come in the festival. Lithuanian accordionist Raimondas Sviackevičius gave a short but treasured glimpse into an astonishingly versatile instrument with a rich new music heritage; two pieces by Feliksas Bajoras and Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, encompassing note-cluster bursts, whistling lines and some almost organ-like colours, were performed from Sviackevičius’ forthcoming recital on May 14th – which I am frankly envious of anyone who was able to attend. Graham Fitkin then presented four of his own, characteristically engaging, highly rhythmic and often exuberant tonal works. After the quite lovely Powder Trap for lever harp and electronics, touchingly played by his partner, the renowned harpist Ruth Wall, Fitkin himself performed three affecting pieces at the piano; an assured and thoroughly enjoyable performance reflecting the easy-going nature of the composer and his music, and wanting only for the greater resonances of a superior instrument than that of the venue’s open bar area, from which we moved into the theatre for Currier’s Static.
Currier introduced his work personally with the assistance of the fine players of Mexico’s Onix Ensemble, who provided live musical examples for his talk before their excellent performance of the entire six-movement work. Scored for the classic Pierrot lunaire line-up of violin, ‘cello, flute, clarinet (with doublings) and piano, Static is an homage to the word’s antithetical meaning as unchanging equilibrium on the one hand and chaotic white noise on the other. With clear roots in 18th and 19th Century formal traditions, the piece was an exemplar of textural clarity and varied, colouristic writing for the instruments. It inhabited a world clearly aligned with that of Schoenberg’s Farben (from his Five Pieces for Orchestra), based on a series of translucent, repeated chords and swelling motifs. There were touches of Messiaen too, say, in the bird-like twittering of violin and piano of the 4th movement Resonant. But the piece was indubitably Currier’s own and provided an intriguing insight into his preoccupation with time and musical memory; an insight which was all the deeper for the yet more atmospheric second performance of the piece on the following evening; a welcome opportunity to hear again music which repays repeated listening, this time heard as part of a concert by Onix which was mainly devoted to Mexican composers.
The first half of this ensuing concert in Cowbridge (10th May) presented pieces by Charles Halka, Juan Pablo Contreras and Samuel Zyman who, together, demonstrated the centrality of European modernist developments alongside indigeneous and Spanish-derived themes for younger and older generations of Mexican composers alike. The music was full of habaneric panache and fin-de-siècle wrong-note waltzes, with bold gestures which were by turn spiky, seductive and almost romantically lyrical. However, a certain similarity of approach, tempo and soundworld across the pieces began to wear somewhat by the conclusion of the first half, which might have benefited from some contrasting material. Arguably the strongest piece was Contreras’ Silencio en Juárez, which was dedicated to the memory of fifteen teenagers shockingly murdered in Ciudad Juárez in 2010 and which was, unsurprisingly, both bleak and sombre in places as well as angrily and tersely expressed.
Onix is led by the flautist and composer Alejandro Escuer, who opened the second half with the UK premiere of Templos for solo flute and electronics, an essay in clearly relished ‘extended’ techniques, percussive effects and multiphonics. That splendid second performance of Currier’s Static was then followed by Paramell VI by Stephen Montague; an Anglo-American composer whose often witty adroitness is familiar to UK new music audiences, and who titled this piece with an invented word as the sixth he had been asked to name before he had even started composing it. As it happens, to my ears, the sound of the word did convey some aspect of the music’s character as a moto perpetuo, which built up, then gradually deflated, as it were, like a balloon slowly floating upwards and away.
My experience of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival over the years is that warmth and intimacy lies at its heart whatever the scale of the forces on display at any particular event. This, together with superb musicianship, was surely in evidence at the preceding lunchtime concert at the Dora Stoutzker Hall given earlier on Friday 10th by the Fidelio Trio, whose Beethovenian name perhaps belies their dedication to playing and commissioning new music. On this occasion, they performed a winning combination of Fitkin, Ed Bennett and Michael Nyman, having recently launched a complete recording of the latter’s piano trios for MN Records. Fitkin’s opening Lens was exquisite; combining rippling ostinati figures with delicate glissandi and repeated, pulsating open strings, opening out into a broad ‘cello melody whilst building via cross-rhythms to a passionate climax before subsiding once again into more ghostly, elegiac material.
The long, sustained bowing which featured here and throughout – but to greatest effect in Ed Bennett’s wonderful Slow Down – might have appeared effortless for these string players, but, in fact, it is extremely hard to execute, and their poise, timing and ensemble were second to none. Open strings and glissandi again featured in the Bennett, which was an unexpectedly tender piece from this usually most vigorous of composers. However, the music never lacked for dynamism of a quiet kind within the simple beauty of its plucked piano strings, haunting, slow motion melodies and unsettling harmonic field. As the music gently slipped in and out of consonance, the Trio held the audience rapt right up until the final conclusive/inconclusive chord.
Following this, Nyman’s Time Will Pronounce felt altogether more concrete – though I suspect the impressive performance here lent the piece more substance than it might ultimately embody. The inspiration is serious enough, in Joseph Brodsky’s poem Bosnia Tune, addressing the horror of ongoing death in Bosnia during 1992-3. Nyman responds with material utilising his trademark scalic figures, alternating slow-fast tempi and the repetition and displacement of driving rhythms. Structurally, sections of impassioned threnody were alternated with boppier passages and more thinly textured, static material, and the Fidelio moved as one in maintaining forwards momentum.
The spirit of exploration was nowhere stronger than at Cardiff’s Urdd Hall at lunchtime the following day (11th May), in a programme which brought together the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra from Lithuania with two electroacoustic composers, one British and the other American. The encounter was nothing short of alchemical. First, conductor Donatas Katkus led his string orchestra in a highly intense acoustic work by Raminta Šerkšnytė, built upon oscillating minor thirds and repeated motivic fragments (notably a scurrying semiquaver movement), which grew into music of incredible emotional sweep. The sound of the orchestra was extraordinarily rich and resonant – a sound quite different from anything a British ensemble might produce, and which was utterly compelling. This sound had nothing to do with technical issues of balance, say – or even accuracy – and went beyond tone quality to an ethos; a kind of deeply musical embodiment of ‘soft attention’, which made of Šerkšnytė’s De Profundis a profound experience indeed.
Moving, too, in a completely different way, was the piece which followed: Lexicon by Andrew Lewis – who also celebrates his 50th birthday this year. Lewis is a composer of mainly, but not exclusively, electroacoustic music. Based at Bangor University, he has worked there with the Miles Dyslexia Centre in the creation of this powerful articulation of the challenges – and the creative potential – of dyslexia. The piece brings together art and science, incorporating electronic sound diffusion with video to explore speech sounds; specifically the problems that dyslexic people have in accessing and analysing speech sounds and in linking these to letters – not forgetting the poignant and poetically expressive ‘accidents’ that can arise therefrom. Words from a poem by Tom, a 12-year old boy, describing his experience of dyslexia, were recorded and broken down into their constituent phonetic parts and rearranged, expanded, contracted and so on by electronic means. The impact of these verbal transformations was enhanced by the strong, correlating video images of words with their associations and altered meanings – ‘leaves’ becoming ‘lifes’, becoming ‘flies’, becoming scattered letters, for example; the combination creating a thought-provoking as well as deeply affecting aural and visual landscape.
It was the tragic ingress of land by the sea in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina that inspired the final piece in this visionary programme. Currier’s Next Atlantis was another example of multimedia composition at its best and most socially impactful; electroacoustic music is married with video (by Pawel Wojtasik) and live, acoustic string orchestra to create a profound elegy – as the programme note put it – ‘for a future that must not happen’. Part documentary, part haunting evocation, the piece transported the audience to a world of loss – as well as eerie beauty – on many scales, both human and of the wider, natural world. Glimpses of ruined, abandoned houses through shimmering spiders’ webs, the blank faces of traumatised survivors, the bright colours of industrial equipment, twisted against an azure sky – and, everywhere, water; still, gently moving, submerging and bubbling to the surface, the filmic images and electronically transformed water sounds wove in and out in melodic and harmonic dialogue with the strings and ghostly echoes from Bourbon Street Parade. The inclusion of live musicians with these scenes of desolation – in particular, the extraordinary tones of this orchestra on this occasion – added a pathos beyond words. Encircling players and audience alike with his beautifully sculpted sound diffusion, Currier created an unforgettable paene to the power of nature and the vulnerability and impermanence of human endeavour. A great piece ending a fantastic concert.