Vic Hoyland

Molecular man

Of Fantasy

Jan Smaczny on Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's new series, The Independent, 1992

Autumn has been a good season for contemporary music in Birmingham, what with the last of Mark-Anthony Turnage's commissions for CBSO and Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Sound Theatre's series of tape compositions at the Midlands Arts Centre. To cap it all came Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's annual series with Birmingham Jazz, this year sporting the laurel of a Prudential Arts award.

The opening concert, last month, was for the most part a collection of premieres revisited. For the second, BCMG returned to its policy of presenting a new commission as the centrepiece of each concert. Here, David Sawer's new work for string orchestra, The Memory of Water, was matched against an earlier BCMG commission for a similar combination, Vic Hoyland's Of Fantasy.

Framing these two newcomers with John Adams's Shaker Loops and Shostakovich's Symphony No.14 made an interesting comment on the music of the last 30 years. Where the Adams and Shostakovich showed the extent to which musical tradition has become fragmented, the two new works, paradoxically, gave more than a hint of a new consensus.

Having Shaker Loops as a prelude proved a distinct advantage for Sawer and Hoyland. Under the energetic direction of the composer, BCMG's string players turned in a punchy performance of one of the Minimalist repertoire's classics.

At times Shaker Loops seems to aspire to the poetry of Wagner's Forest Murmurs and the sweet angularity of Copland, but ultimately its lack of resolution offers little satisfaction. The sheer cosiness of repe-tition, in the end, deadens rather than stimulates the ear.

Sawer and Hoyland provided listening with more fibre. Both works explore a fundamentally post-Romantic musical language that neither patronises the sympathetic audience nor leaves it behind. Sawer's evocation of the molecular properties of water possessed some graphic, ear-catching gestures and a strong sense of development. His sensitive exploitation of the textures available from the string group, including a growing spatial separation between two
solo violinists, provided a point of contact with Hoyland's bigger-boned Of Fantasy. A second hearing of the latter confirmed the impression that it communicates directly and without fuss. Hoyland offers lyricism without banality, lashed into line by a powerful sense of drama.

Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, as the conductor Mark Elder said in an eloquent introduction to the work, could hardly have been further in sensibility from the rest of the music in the concert. This single-minded journey into darkness through poems about death in all its aspects needs careful handling if it is not to degenerate into a self-indulgent wallow. Making his debut with BCMG, Elder delivered a theatrically paced reading that proved the perfect vehicle for Vivian Tierney's rich and passionate soprano singing and Michail Ryssov's cavernous bass. The four works made for a long evening — all credit to Elder and BCMG's string players that it never flagged.