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Celebrating 100 years of music making; Birmingham University Music Society Symphony Hall/ Birmingham Ensemble Barber Institute, Birmingham University.

Celebrating the centenary of its charter, the University of Birmingham offered on Saturday night just the sort of programme to sum up its ethos.

We heard the premiere of a new work by one of the present Music Department staff, commissioned as part of this concluding year of 'Towards the Millennium', as well as two well-loved works by its first-ever Professor of Music.

Vic Hoyland's Vixen was the new piece, a substantial 30-minute-plus work for a huge orchestra which movingly underlined its composer's late-romantic sympathies: Mahler, Schoenberg and Berg are rarely far away.

Nor, refreshingly, is Messiaen in his gamelan-exploring mode, tinkling and resonant percussion sounds underpinning long-spanned orchestral melodies and sustained harmonies; the ending furnishes a particularly magical example.

Despite the length of its single movement, Vixen's structure holds up well, with some clearly recognisable landmarks and sign-posts of significant orchestral colour, confidently conveyed by the University Orchestra in a well-prepared reading under Jonty Harrison.

Less clear are the work's apparent debt to certain procedures in the Beatles' Abbey Road, its consequent expression as a love-song and homage to the sun, and, even more obscure, the relevance of the medieval Persian theorist Avicenna, to whom Hoyland devotes a substantial portion of his programme-note; sometimes composers tell us too much.

And Elgar certainly revealed much of his soul in The Music Makers, the poignant, exquisite cantata written a handful of years after he had come and gone as founding Professor of Birmingham's music department.

This wonderful work is full of cross-references to other music of Elgar's, whether already written, or, in some instances, yet to come; emotional clues come from their setting of the texts of O'Shaughnessy's idealistic ode.

Yet Saturday's reading remained stubbornly dry-eyed, Colin Timms reluctant to allow any sentiment to impede the flow of a well-drilled account from this excellent orchestra, the large yet flexible University Choir and commanding soloist Susan Parry, a Birmingham alumna.

Elgar's manuscript of The Music Makers is housed at the Barber Institute, where yesterday afternoon the Birmingham Ensemble presented its own 'Towards the Millennium' concert.

In a programme which featured such luminaries as Peter Maxwell Davies and Philip Glass it was also good to encounter lesser-known names: David Wilde, whose moving lament The Cellist of Sarajevo was absorbingly played by Eduardo Vassallo, and, particularly, the work of Ivor McGregor.

We heard the first movement of this young violinist's specially-commissioned String Quartet, expertly written for the medium, attractive and engaging with more than a hint of the English pastoral style; and, particularly beautiful, the Alice in Wonderland-derived Four Quadrilles for Oboe and Harp, deftly exploiting the pictorial sounds of these two most evocative instruments.

Christopher Morley
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Author:Morley, Christopher
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 20, 2000
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