Alongside the 20 large-scale scores that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commissioned to mark its 100th anniversary in 2020, it also asked another 20 composers, at the beginnings of their careers, to write miniatures lasting no more than four minutes. The original plan had been for all those premieres to be scattered through the orchestra’s season, but the disruption of the pandemic put paid to that idea. Instead, the pieces were brought together in Sounds New, a single concert conducted by Clark Rundell showcasing the young talent in all its diversity before a hugely enthusiastic audience.
All of the composers commissioned were in their 20s or early 30s (the programme booklet was coy about dates of birth) and often differed widely in their experience and progress in their careers so far. For some of them, one suspected, this had been a first chance to compose for a full symphony orchestra, while others had already received prestigious commissions, and even had their works recorded. Rundell and the CBSO were marvellously even-handed in their enthusiasm for all the pieces too; all the performances seemed fabulously assured.
There was a wide range of styles to accommodate as well. There was music here that would not have seemed out of place among the English pastoralists or in the Vienna of a century ago, tinges of jazz and folk elsewhere, and one piece, Millicent B James’s Come Show Them the River, that drew irresistibly on gospel and soul. Some pieces crammed too much into the four-minute frame, so that one longed for fewer ideas, and a bit more space around them; the most successful were those in which vivid thematic material was used with economy and perceptible logic.
That material came in various forms, whether derived from an existing work, like the patchwork of motifs from Holst’s Jupiter in Bethan Morgan-Williams’s Parti Di-ffiniau (Party Without Borders), the energised, rough-edged juxtapositions of Florence Anna Maunders’s In the Land of Hypocrisy, or the deconstructed march of Laurence Osborn’s The Biggest Thing I’ve Ever Squashed. But the two most memorable pieces of all were very strikingly different: Liam Taylor-West’s Turning Points, a brilliantly accomplished orchestral work that seemed to have John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine somewhere in its DNA, and Héloïse Werner’s enchanting Crossings, one of four pieces in the concert that involved a singer, in this case Werner herself, whose wordless phrases were echoed and transformed by the orchestra and vice versa, in ways that were both utterly logical and regularly surprising.