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  Bainbridge, Berio and Meredith  jchadwick at 14:56 on 02 May 2007

Walking into the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank at 6pm on a beautiful evening, one was met with a mix of unusual sights and sounds. As you enter the refurbished foyer area, people are sat at tables, relaxing, drinking coffee and chatting. But, also, they are listening to the groups of performers from the Royal Academy of Music and the London Sinfonietta who are giving premières of new works by student composers. Surrounded by the musicians, the audience seems to enjoy the music, and the feeling is one of interaction between the performers and the listeners, as each artistic experience unfolds within this shared space. I found my gaze drawn to the architecture of the building, something that would normally escape my attention. The new works, also from RAM students, are specifically designed for the layout of the new foyer, in homage to their Head of Composition, Simon Bainbridge, whose Music Space Reflection, premièred in the Imperial War Museum North on Saturday, gets its London première tonight also. Descending down into the hall itself, the atmosphere is excited as the audience waits for the show to start. The demography of the audience is mixed, school groups and students equalling the older segments of the population.

Simon Bainbridge walks onto the stage, but whereas in the foyer, the audience and performers shared the music space comfortably, Bainbridge proceeds to lecture on his new work, as the room waits in silence. I feel the interaction is somehow lost. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, the piece begins. It is inspired by the architecture of Daniel Libeskind, especially the different angles and shapes within in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the echoing of the unheated holocaust tower. Indeed, once you begin to listen past the animated ‘screensaver’ background, reminiscent of the depiction of the opening of the Rite of Spring in Disney’s Fantasia, you start to imagine the cold oppressive vastness of the holocaust tower. Distorted versions of the live music are thrown about the room via the electronic array, creating an extra dimension to the piece. Bainbridge calls this music temporal as well as spatial, as it is intended to remove the audience from real-time into the time-scale of his music. This comment left me wondering how exactly he was successfully going to make what is essentially a repeated series of eight twelve-note chords last for 25 minutes with only the odd electronic effect here and there to hold the audience’s attention. After hearing it, I was still wondering. Perhaps to hear this work in the space it was designed for would allow the audience the freedom to move and to interact with the space that this music needs to be effectively brought to life.

After the first interval is Berio’s Laborintus II. Programmed between Bainbridge and Meredith, Berio seems like one of the old masters. This piece, in homage to Dante, is a catalogue of musical styles, swing and jazz next to plainsong chants, chattering monologues in various tongues, clapping, and electronic sounds that could have been taken from a Star Wars soundtrack. The effective textural scoring is brilliantly executed as the electronic parts act as extensions of the instrumental parts, which in turn extend the vocal lines. Notably, when the trombone took over a note from the vocalist, the transition was produced with such seamless subtlety that the effect was astonishing. The vocalists were excellent with great facility in extended techniques such as piccolo-like high notes, the lead female even scat singing and moving like Ella Fitzgerald at one point! The Sinfonietta played with amazing energy and vibrancy, always with the utmost precision under Diego Masson’s expert direction, and gained the best round of applause of the evening.

After thoroughly enjoying every second of the 35-minute-long Berio work, the focus returns to the foyer, where more entertainment is laid on in the form of a projection of animation work from Kingston University students accompanied by electronic music by Anna Meredith, the composer of the final piece to be heard tonight. By now the time is 9.30pm and the atmosphere in the darkened foyer feels to me akin that of an airport full of delayed passengers, waiting for the final piece instead of a flight, and with Meredith’s accompanying soundtrack instead of the pounding headache inside my skull as I long to get home!

This doesn’t bode well for the final offering on the programme by the BBCSSO’s composer-in-residence. It is a good job that Flak is only 14 minutes long, as by 10pm it still hadn’t begun. Needless to say, the enthusiastic audience of four hours ago is somewhat diminished by now. As the music begins, however, it is evident that Meredith’s piece is, as Douglas Adams might put it, mostly harmless. I felt that this piece played on the visual and spatial aspects rather than musical ones. Atmospheric lighting and smoke effects created the air of a midnight ritual, similar to what you may get at a late-night contemporary music prom at the Albert Hall. The music grows to what I was expecting to be the climax, but instead of peaking, it just keeps intensifying into a tumultuous noise, the ambient lighting changing from soothing blue to fiery red. This is all very exciting, especially the final blasts from the off-stage trumpets located behind the audience’s heads, but as the concert ends, one is left feeling that the whoops and whistles from Meredith’s fan club do not somehow match the general appreciation felt after the Berio piece. Maybe this is because Berio’s music, compared to that of his living counterparts in tonight’s programme, produced the most alive performance of the evening.

  Re: Bainbridge, Berio and Meredith  red5 at 09:36 on 03 May 2007

I've been to a number of concerts like this at the south bank that have run too long - notably an evening dedicated to Nono, I was really excited by the concert but with two intervals (the second starting at 10) I had to leave and miss the final third to make sure I made it home to the suburbs before midnight! They say they want larger audiences but to get your money's worth you seem to have to live next door to the venue!!