Works by Clancy, Barry, Weir and Grisey

Susan Narucki, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Clement Power

CBSO, Birmingham, 6 February 20124 and a half stars

ClancyThis concert was centred on the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's Apprentice Composer-in-Residence for 2010-12, Sean Clancy.

Currently finishing a doctorate at the Birmingham Conservatoire, Clancy is an Irish composer whose tutors have included Philippe Leroux, Joe Cutler, Howard Skempton, and as part of the BCMG Apprentice Composer scheme, David Lang and Gerald Barry. Clancy is among a number of young Irish composers in the early stages of their careers sketching new contours for the face of Irish art music.

The concert programme was entitled 'Musicians Wrestle Everywhere', the posthumous name given to an Emily Dickinson poem which was taken by composer Judith Weir as the title of the first piece of the evening. Musicians Wrestle Everywhere is a concerto for ten instruments. Weir was inspired by Dickinson's poem's suggestion that music exists in the world wherever we perceive it, whether in the song of the birds, the bark of a dog, the howl of the wind, or the honk of car horns.

Opening and closing with an odd march on pizzicato cello and double bass, Musicians Wrestle Everywhere hinges on jerky syncopation, diatonic discourse, and minor pentatonic melodies, though unfortunately a lack of variety in dynamic and colour makes the piece overall a bit monotonous.

Clancy's Findetotenlieder for soprano and ensemble was written for the BCMG, here joined by Susan Narucki. It's a song in six verses setting text from the visual artist Gabriel Orozco's piece Obit, which uses single lines from different obituaries in the New York Times. For example, the fifth verse of Findetotenlieder reads: 'Made a Kingdom of Popcorn. A Wordsmith Known for His Encyclopaedic Knowledge. Expert on Psychology and Prostitutes. Authority on Ballooning.'

This being a song cycle on death, Mahler and Schubert et al lurk in the background, thoughts inevitably drifting to previous characterisations in art song of death. Clancy rejects, though, any emotional or psychological representation in the soprano in favour of the Tristan Tzara, Burroughs-Gysin route of sifting through the myriad dead letters of the printed mass media: the departed leaving behind them here not the memory of a warm touch but a shroud of absurd phrases and images. Narucki's soprano had the masked character of someone from Alice in Wonderland or Samuel Beckett's Watt.

Findetotenlieder is well weighted formally, the use of contrasting ensemble forces over the six verses creating good balance. A trombone and trumpet duo opening bobs along on a hidden 4/4 pulse before the whole band joins in, driven by bass drum; later, Narucki's bell-bright soprano lilted over a beautiful passage for string quartet. Between each movement the tonal discourse gets caught in a too-literal repetition of a given bar or phrase, communicating a feeling of dread which Clancy relates in his programme note to the repetition-compulsion and death drive of psychoanalytic theory.

Before the interval came Gerald Barry's Feldman's Sixpenny Editions. The name and character of this piece is taken from old printed collections of popular music sold for playing at home. Barry recalls these as providing 'among my first feverish encounters with music as a boy', and the charge they carried has stayed with him ever since: 'I’ve always been fond of grey fugues and exercises,' he writes, 'as well as all kinds of trash, and still play boring exam pieces with pleasure.'

Feldman's Sixpenny Editions is exuberant and bizarre, its eight movements traversing a dusty terrain the art music tradition left behind. The first movement, 'Martial Steps', makes a trite tonal verse move up and up by semitones before abruptly stopping. The second, 'Home Thoughts', is a galloping discordant piano solo, played brilliantly here. And the last movement, 'The Innermost Secret', wistfully recalls lunches Satie took with Debussy, of which Satie said Debussy cooked pork chops 'with the innermost secret.'

GriseyThe second half of the concert was taken up by Gérard Grisey's Quartre chants pour franchir le seuil. First performed by the London Sinfonietta under George Benjamin in 1999, this song cycle, which sets texts from different civilisations on the different guises taken by death, was the last work Grisey completed before his own untimely death. For those who still believe in masterworks, it is certainly a masterwork of late twentieth century Western art music.

It is also difficult to pull off, featuring an unusual ensemble, extended techniques, and unorthodox ensemble writing. Though the BCMG and Narucki fell short here and there, by and large the piece came across well, growing particularly strong in its latter stages.

'La mort de l'ange', the first movement, floated into view, its hushed falling intervals passing round the ensemble with a feeling of weightlessness, mimicking the fall of the titular angel. The work's climax, though, was too abrupt in coming in Clement Power's reading, and the movement's overall shape was a bit lost in the process.

'La mort de la civilisation' pushed brooding harmonies around the stage, which gradually intensified over the movement's duration, the ensemble sounding collectively like an accordion or resonant percussion instrument, each phrase driven by double bass or harp ostinati. The visionary, cinematic quality of the music came across well – an atmosphere settled over the hall, and it was hard not to be transported.

A particular standout was the final chant 'La mort de l'humanité', an apocalyptic imagining of a great flood taken from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Ushered in by a solo section for the three percussionists, between them charged with a battery of percussive resources including gongs, steel drums, bass drums, bongos and marimba, they gradually ratcheted up the tension, bass drums hitting thunder-strikes, until the ensemble entered in weird waves of shrill chords, and Narucki wailed with awful passion.

After the storm, the calm of the final Berceuse, a lullaby for the newly opened world, felt lucid and beautiful. The harmonies – or timbres, since Grisey's writing, making sound a wash, blurs the two – were astounding. Though Narucki's French diction was unclear, her delivery otherwise was strong.

It's a shame to have to end the review on a negative note, but it has to be said: the trombonist, prominent in the centre of the stage, spent the last two movements distractingly yawning, laughing, sprawling his legs, playing with his fingers, rolling his eyes, and generally doing his best to communicate to the audience his dislike of the piece – quite unprofessional.

By Liam Cagney

Photo Credits: Sean Clancy by Alan Moore


Related articles:

Concert review: Grisey's Les espaces acoustiques
CD review: Grisey's Le temps et l'écume (Kairos)
Concert review: Ergodos Voices perform works by Clancy and others