The opening Proms Saturday Matinee show at Cadogan Hall was the first of five concerts in this year’s programme to feature pieces by Pierre Boulez in commemoration of his 90th birthday year. By including works from the furthest ends of his composing career it reinforced how Boulez’ presence and influence continues to loom large over the contemporary classical landscape. Indeed, while introducing the concert Radio 3 presenter Tom Service described him (possibly somewhat contentiously for some) as “the most influential musician alive today”.
The remainder of the programme saw the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under the guidance of Franck Ollu perform a complementary selection of UK and world premieres by composers who have at various stages fallen under the spell of Boulez’s music.
The concert began with three of the twelve Notations that Boulez composed in 1945, specifically numbers 2, 11 and 10. Originally scored for piano, Boulez has since made orchestrations of them but this afternoon saw the BCMG perform the transcriptions for smaller ensemble that German composer Johannes Schöllhorn made in 2011. They form a trio of rapid, vivid miniatures full of piquant, percussive impacts they each last barely over a minute and act as a palette cleanser of sorts before we venture into the denser, longer pieces. They flowed into Schöllhorn’s own La treizième, a similarly hyper-condensed piece that takes a bar from each of Boulez’s twelve Notations and fuses them together.
The most successful of the new pieces premiered today came from Shiori Usui. She explained on stage how Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. was inspired by an infectious fungus that takes hold in ants ultimately causing them to die . It may be the first time that the Proms has hosted music devised from such specific and obscure origins but a brief glance at Usui’s background and interests gives a more understandable context (she has previously written music inspired by the physiology of the human body and natural world phenomena).
The five short structurally complex movements project unusual energies and strange sonorities, featuring abrasive brass, sliding glissandos and ringing percussion. As a musical depiction it makes sense. The obscure origins of the piece may be unlikely to recruit new followers to contemporary classical music but the piece has a pleasing mystery and inscrutability to it – two characteristics that are important to understanding why this genre of music can still be an exciting prospect in the concert hall.
Wanderlied by Betsy Jolas is a slightly more stable and grounded piece, possessing an almost lyrical quality at times (partly due to the cello of soloist Ulrich Heinen) as terse musical conversations are played out between different sections of the BCMG. Hammer Of Solitude by Joanna Lee follows. An ambitious piece drawing obvious inspiration from Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître but also incorporating references to Sylvia Plath, the early stages are defined by contralto Hilary Summers’ distinctive vocals. The harp and marimba of the BCMG then assume prominence before the piece moves in a darker, ominous direction.
The concert ended with Boulez’ Dérive 2, the complexities of which make the piece a near-intimidating proposition for listeners never mind players – that the BCMG and Franck Ollu are so successful in executing it is testament to their monumental levels of concentration and stamina, not to mention technical ability. Fast-paced flurries and febrile landslides of sound impose themselves early on. Woodwind and brass seem to fall in on themselves and piano lines cascade downwards unevenly. The instruments of the eleven players seem to react to each other to form an egalitarian spectrum of sound – not one instrument is ever really allowed to dominate, it’s more a case of the sounds being allowed to coalesce into one glowing sound world. As the BCMG rigorously move through the piece the sense of restless re-creation and relentless reinvention becomes clear. In this sense Dérive 2 seems to represent an anti-minimalism, an abundance of life existing within the work. It confirms the reputations of the BCMG and Ollu as players of the highest calibre and sets the bar high for the rest of the Boulez to feature later in the season.