Sunday, 13 December 2009

Luke Bedford at the Wigmore Hall

The name Luke Bedford will be familiar to those who follow new music and this site, but his name should one day be familiar to all. There are hundreds of new music composers around, but even among the good ones he stands out. And I'm not the only one who's been thinking that for a while. He's been appointed composer in residence at the Wigmore Hall, one of theworld's top chamber music venues.

His Chiaroscuro (2002, rev 2005) was played last night by the Fidelio Trio. It's a surprisingly mature work for such a young man (he's still just 31). As another composer in the audience said, "not a note wasted". In painting, chiaroscuro is the black and white outlines over which colours are painted, to give them depth. The skeleton of the work. It's a good working method for composers too. In painting, artists without strong ideas muddy their colours with too many brushstrokes. Same with composers, who disguise weak ideas in a deluge of diversionary notes. Luke Bedford writes music with the passion of a Chinese brush painter. Every note counts, with maximum purpose. You don't need to fill in the background if your basic image is focused and powerful. (The picture is part of a large, dramatic scroll depicting the nine dragons of mythology, painted in 1244 by Chen Rong. Enlarge for detail.)

Bedford's Chiaroscuro is muscular, spare but not minimal: definitely a piece to hear again. The piano part works like a foundation, cello and violin diagonal and vertical against the throbbing piano horizontal, a sort of multi-dimensional energy. "There is a constant shift between stable and more mutable areas", writes Bedford, "much of the piece is in an uneven 11/16 time signature, creating the effect that the ground is not entirely stable beneath." The whole concert was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Hear & Now and will be available internationally, online and on demand.

Ed Bennett was a name new to me but I was impressed too, by his For Marcel Dzama (2007) where he himself played the electronics on a laptop (in the Wigmore Hall!). Again, the vitality was striking. The music grows in three plateaux, rising to a rhythmic finale, where the quirky voices dance wildly together. The electronics hovered elusively in the background like a veil of mist : more effective than being overtly dominant. Sometimes I found myself wondering "what's that" rather than thinking "sound desk showing off". A good thing. Only when I got home and read the programme notes did I discover the piece was inspired by a Winnipeg painter, Marcel Dzama, whose work apparently is filled with oddball characters.

Perhaps the performance was so lively because members of the Fidelio Trio are friends who work together in various combinations : their zest and committment made the music vivid.

Thomas Larcher's My illness is the Medicine I need (2002) was scheduled several months ago as part of a Larcher series, see earlier links) but postponed, so I was eagerly anticipating this performance. It's a strange, piece which seems to search probingly without conclusion. Perhaps because the ideas are taken from snippets from interviews in a magazine (Benetton!). They are fragements, soundbites from people's lives, evidently complicated lives filled with anomie. ""I don't like freedom. The world frightens me." Gradually a hint of terror creeps in "I think people are brought here to be killed....once they give you an injection, you instantly stop hearing voices". Conceptually it's fascinating that Larcher can string together discrete ideas to create a coherent mood, but the naturally meandering form such a process seems to take is less easy to grasp. Patricia Rozario sang, nicely, luxury casting as they say in the movies, but maybe not quite right for the idiom.

This concert was part of the Soundings project, organized by the Austrian Cultural Forum, who often do imaginative things for art in this country. Composers grow when they grow as human beings, so every experience becomes a factor in how they work, even if it's not overt "influence". So it was good to hear Für Bálint András Varga by Johannes Maria Staud (b 1974). It's a five minute miniature, which flits past so quickly you're taken by surprise.

More substantial was Eduard Steuermann's transcription for piano, cello and violin of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. This is such a wonderful work, that reduced forces bring out its essence. Steuermann (1892-1964) was a pianist who studied with Schoenberg himself, who passionately believed in the idea that transcriptions taught musicians to concentrate on fundamentals: why and how a piece works, not the fancy wrapping. A lesson in the art of composition which should be remembered today.

No comments: