With works by just two composers, there was an elegant symmetry to Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s latest programme, which was conducted by Finnegan Downie Dear. Pieces by Edmund Hunt involving a countertenor (William Purefoy) and live electronics straddled the interval, while around them were works for ensemble by Richard Baker, who is very familiar to BCMG audiences as both composer and conductor.
Both of Hunt’s works used texts in Old Norse. The longer, more ambitious of the two was The Waking of Angantyr, using verses from the story of a warrior woman who travels to the island where her dead father has been buried. It involves three protagonists, all of them sung by the countertenor in Hunt’s setting; the live electronics certainly conjured an evocative background of whispering voices, mysterious rustlings and knockings, but the vocal writing and its ensemble commentary hardly hinted at any drama, despite Purefoy’s best efforts with the text.
Hunt’s other work, Bright Land of Wave’s Flame, using words from an Icelandic saga, was slighter but more successful, with electronic reflections of Purefoy’s voice woven around his live singing, and just a double bass (Phoebe Cheng) as an anchor.
Baker’s buoyant, witty instrumental writing certainly provided a contrast. The inspiration for his Learning to Fly was Paul Auster’s novel Mr Vertigo, and the picaresque adventures of its central character; it’s effectively a concerto for basset clarinet – Oliver Janes was the soloist here – leading the ensemble through a series of episodes, each of them crisply, colourfully characterised. With its gracefully drooping phrases and final music-box surprise, Hwyl fawr ffrindiau (the title, Goodbye Friends, from a Welsh children’s song), was written as a farewell gift to Jackie and Stephen Newbould when they stepped down from leading BCMG six years ago, but The Tyranny of Fun, from 2012, is a much more ambitious statement. With its echoes of late 1970s disco music and punctuations from a MIDI drum kit that are sometimes threatening, sometimes energising, it’s a constantly diverting score, a real ensemble workout.