One of the frustrating things for fans of contemporary music of the sort on offer at the 50th Vale of Glamorgan Festival is that it is not more widely heard. Dedicated to the music of living composers – over twenty at this year’s festival, including its founder and artistic director John Metcalf – it’s typical of the surprises such music holds in store for those adventurous enough to look out for it. Most living composers look to metropolitan centres for their core audiences, though Huddersfield, Presteigne, and the Vale are good examples of how it can take root beyond them. Just talking about modern music in this way suggests that it’s embattled and only for those willing to listen to sounds not normally heard in the concert hall, no thanks to conservative programming, mostly of music by dead composers (one does hear the polite description ‘no longer living’). This is a shame. The opening concert of the Vale this year at Hoddinott Hall, in the Wales Millennium Centre, was simply mind-blowing and music of all shapes, sounds and sizes has been performed at other venues.
Arts Scene in Wales visited the festival twice to get a feel for its go-ahead programming and its first-class musicmaking.
Of course, contemporary music, in drawing the ire of critics and failing to make inroads among the generality of music-lovers, has often found its creators with their backs to the wall. In the case of the 67-year-old Chinese composer Qigang Chen, there was a different species of victimisation. When Olivier Messiaen retired from the Paris Conservatoire, he took on just one pupil: Qigang Chen, who has since become a French citizen. But as a teenage student in China, Chen was around at the time of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He was restricted in his movements for three years and underwent ‘ideological re-education’. Seventeen years later he won a scholarship to travel abroad, and made straight for the Frenchman’s tutelage.
Chen’s music is described as being a ‘correspondence’ between East and West, and it’s sometimes what we expect from Eastern musicians domiciled in the West. But Western ‘classical’ music is now universal and while some of Chen’s works do incorporate Chinese elements, the ones of his played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Alexandre Bloch at this concert speak more of his new life beyond China than any native traditions. Jiang Tcheng Tse, a setting of an 11th-century poem by Su Shi for voice, mixed choir (here the BBC National Chorus of Wales) and orchestra almost defies categorisation. The poet, after a dream, speaks of his love for his wife, who died tragically ten years before. The voice part has its origins in techniques of the Peking Opera – not like Western opera – and seems to give the poetic sentiments an aura that conventional Western music couldn’t handle. Chen had difficulty finding a male singer who could deal with these techniques, so eventually opted for a female singer, the phenomenal Meng Meng, who gave the work its premiere in Beijing in March and repeated the performance here under the same conductor. In doing so, Chen discovered by an accident an aspect of the poem – the idea of mutual husband and wife sentiments – that hadn’t occurred to him. The Cardiff one was its first outing in Europe. The music commemorates a generally happy marriage, though there are outbursts in the music which might suggest periods of turmoil – a typical union, in other words. What Men Meng did with her voice is indescribable. And the choristers did pretty well too in supporting it and helping create a dreamlike elegy.
Chen’s L’eloignement for string orchestra, which opened the concert, was dazzlingly played. It’s a busy, sometimes rhapsodic, piece, with little if any reference to the composer’s origins. Some contemporary music can be hard on the listener not used to its language, but most of it, including this bravura piece, would sit perfectly in a symphony concert programme, if only someone would champion it and think it worth promoting. That the Vale attracts great names was exemplified by the French composer Thierry Escaich. Not heard of him? In France, whose musical taste is not always as timid as in Britain, he is performed often. This concert included his Psalmos, a concerto for orchestra commissioned by the Cincinatti Symphony. Its thrust and its interesting salutes to the traditional chorale build to an amazing conclusion celebratory of the composer’s imaginative treatment of themes. If less deliberate and shorter than Bartok’s famous Concerto for Orchestra, it nevertheless lays claim to being considered of that ilk.
The leading Danish composer Bent Sørensen was represented by his Trumpet Concerto, played by the orchestra’s principal trumpet Philippe Schartz, who was more than a match for the bulk of material, a lot of it chromatic, handed to him by the composer. But if all eyes and ears were on the soloist, the composer’s use of sound sheets, including humming and hand-rubbing by members of the orchestra (the vocals marked ‘Voce orch’ in the score) were a challenging means of creating different sounds. Which basically is what music, any music, is about. That said, the concerto is not as one normally understand it; but this is the 21st century and we need to change wavelengths.
Sørensen was also represented in the piano recital given by Serbo-American Ivan Ilić (main image) at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. His 12 Nocturnes are sometimes ridiculously brief and seem to pursue intimacy, nostalgia and quietude at the expense of ignoring what a Steinway concert grand piano is capable of. The pianist, now living in Bordeaux (French connections are common in contemporary music), believes that a capacious performing space such as the college’s Dora Stoutzker Hall is perhaps not conducive to this composer’s hesitant, almost reluctant, attempts to give voice to such hushed emotions. But that’s another aspect of contemporary music: its confounding of set ideas and musical forms. If you come to this music with an open mind, almost everything begins to make sense. Ilić is an interesting musician. Having graduated in maths and music at UCL, Berkeley, he travelled to France to study at the Conservatoire (Premier Prix) and the École Normale. He turned up in Wales several years ago, apropos of no aim in particular, and toured small, sometimes obscure, venues at pianos of varying degrees of eccentricity. Getting himself known, one supposes. He’s interested in musical byways, including Godowsky’s Chopin Studies for the left hand. The first part of this concert was delivered in the form of an illustrated lecture. As the Dane’s Nocturnes were brief and the number of them he played short of a dozen, the talk stood in for much; it was almost as though a pianist talking was actually part of the ‘music’ (these days, it would be possible). The recital included two world premières, the American Keeril Makan’s Capturing Sweetness, written for the pianist and for performance at this recital, and Metcalf’s Prelude and Chorale, at three minutes almost a brief in the Sørensen manner. Chant and Endless Song completed a trio of Metcalf brevities notable for the composer’s meticulous command of content, proving that pithiness is not necessarily synonymous with lack of substance or less than rigorous treatment. David Lang’s this was written by hand came with an amusing composer note that had nothing to do with what the music was about; an example of the composer letting, with almost cavalier explanation, the music speak for itself.
The festival has, as ever, provided an astonishing range of music from composers native and foreign, including such pantheon names as Steve Reich and John Adams. Its fifty years will be marked next year by anniversary celebrations for which £20,000 needs to be raised. The charitable Colwinston Trust has already pledged £3,000 in match funding and Metcalf himself has waived his fee to provide another £2,000. It’ll happen; at Vale of Glam, it always does