Modernist music of haunting magic

Ivan Hewett reviews the Huddersfield Festival

The Huddersfield Festival, that 10-day extravaganza of modernist music, is once again proving that something so often painted as grey, forbidding and "intellectual" can be a riot of colour, emotional intensity - and sheer fun.

Among the marvels of the first three days were concerts by two Norwegian groups, brought over as part of the celebrations of Norway's 100th birthday as an independent nation.

In classical music the country's image hasn't progressed much beyond the folksy charm of Grieg. That note was struck just once, in the concert given by the BIT20 Ensemble, in a piece with a Grieg-like title: Løp, Lokk og Linjer (Chases, Cattle Calls and Charts) by Lasse Thoresen.

This hour-long suite is based on folk-melodies, sung here with touching unsentimental plangency by the folk-singer Berit Opheim.

Thoresen worked hard to reveal the haunting magic of these songs, surrounding them with an ensemble that often sounded like a hooting, honking bestiary, lit by glowing major chords.

Often, it attained a luminous grandeur, but at length the naivety started to seem twee, especially at the end, when the violinist stood up and with a dewy-eyed smile finished the singer's melody with a plucked note. Thoresen undoubtedly has a gift, but he needs a good editor.

What was most striking about this concert, and the two given by the group Cikada, was the relaxed virtuosity of the playing, highlighted by the slick integration of "normal" and "odd" sounds found in several of the pieces. It was there in two works by German composer Carola Bauckholt, which featured blown bottles, the plucked innards of a piano, and a bowed vibraphone.

It was also there in the louche wit of the Italian Stefano Gervasoni's Godspell, which married cabaret slinkiness with expressionist darkness. And it was there in two pieces by Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin, both of which revealed a gift for making small things rich in fantasy, like a magician's clockwork toys.

But the best pieces had no need of strange sounds. Japanese composer Jo Kondo's Yarrow spun a texture of fascinating monotony from an accordion (rivetingly played by Norwegian virtuoso Frode Haltli) and a string quartet.

And Possible Cities by the 32 year-old Norwegian composer Eivind Buene created a musical metaphor for the teeming human potential of cities; an unpromising idea, perhaps, but it was convincingly embodied in this fascinating piece.

(Filed: 22/11/2005) Daily Telegraph



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