Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

The tidal wave of new music during the pandemic shows no sign of abating. The Southbank Center’s SoundState, a five-day festival of new music, has just kicked off with a high-energy concert featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner.

The line-up for this year’s SoundState looks impressive, embracing new music royalty such as Bang on a Can All-Stars, Meredith Monk, the Arditti Quartet and flautist Claire Chase, and a wide range of contemporary styles, starting from this opening concert.

All four works were getting their first performances in the UK. Rebecca Saunders’s to an utterance, written in 2020, is in effect a piano concerto – explosive, driven, not an easy listen. It sets the ever-adventurous pianist Nicolas Hodges scudding up and down the keyboard with whole armfuls of notes, interrupted by aggressive outbursts from the orchestra, until the energy dissipates into a hard-won silence.

The other three composers were American. Electronic gurglings open Mason Bates’s Liquid Interface from 2007. The composer says the piece imagines water in different forms, though one would hardly know it from the music, which runs from highly rhythmical interplay to pure Americana, a mash-up of Dixieland swing, big band and Hollywood glamor. It was hard to make sense of it, but it was a lot of fun.

A conductor leads an orchestra

Edward Gardner conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall © Mark Allan

Throw in Missy Mazzoli’s atmospheric River Rouge Transfiguration of 2013 and George Walker’s Symphony No. 5, “Visions”, completed in 2016 when he was 94 and the only disappointment (too disjointed and unmemorable), and here was an all-round showcase for the orchestral virtuosity of the London Philharmonic under its new principal conductor.

The day before, Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau returned to the Barbican for one of their duo recitals. Star pulling-power meant the hall looked fuller than it has since lockdown, and an enthusiastic audience was rewarded with a generous program.

The pair’s previous visit in 2018 was for a complete performance of Wolf’s Italian songbook. A selection of love songs by Schumann and Brahms this time looked less promising, but with some high-quality singing and less of the irritating play-acting, it turned out the more rewarding.

Two opera singers are not always so adept at song. Kaufmann’s straightforward style is familiar now, the clarity of the words and lack of intrusive interpretation coming across as distinct virtues. He was especially fine here at the long line, patiently building to climaxes of power and smouldering tone, as in Schumann’s “Stille Tränen”.

Damrau did not start so well, sounding intermittently thin or wobbly, but her voice settled and she went on to some delightfully characterful lighter songs. A bonus this time was duets by both composers, generally less well known, plus some others turned into duets, such as Brahms’s “Von ewiger Liebe” (not ideal, but these are not the first singers to do so).

Nothing should obscure the masterclass in accompanying that Helmut Deutsch gave at the piano, expertly sifting the more dense romantic textures. This was part of a European tour and six venues are still to come, from Paris to Vienna via Germany and Spain.

SoundState to April 3,

Kaufmann / Damrau tour continues,

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