The Sunday Times – 23 December 2018
Classical review: London Contemporary Music Festival
“b r e a d t h b r e a t h had a genuine vitality”
The musical end-of-year has become notable for the London Contemporary Music Festival — this was the seventh instalment — tucked away in its altering bases, its innovative spaces, often literally as well as figuratively underground, from the bland profusion of seasonal celebrations in familiar halls. While carols and a cappella choruses are the Christmas mainstay elsewhere, with that hectic if essentially sentimental revisiting of “early music”, the LCMF goes in for the putatively path-breaking and, indeed, truly outrageous, supported by a large young crowd reliably mustered online — we’re a long way down the road from posters and brochures.
This year’s 16 days of events, under the philosophical rubric Sounds of the Thick Present and the artistic direction of Igor Toronyi-Lalic, were mostly at Ambika P3, the vast concrete-construction hall (part of Westminster University) on Marylebone Road. I caught the tripartite closing concert, chock-full of items, in which the new LCMF Orchestra was unveiled.
LCMF events are not like other concerts. Typically, at this one you hoped for a seat, but if you couldn’t find one, you just stood anywhere or wandered around. Nobody stops you doing anything. The audience is more like a horde, milling amiably in the quite dark ambience, than a ticketed gathering, each with his or her proper place and expectations. I’d only a vague idea what was coming next, or where it was coming from: for the festival’s use of the Ambika “auditorium” was certainly enterprising.
It is arguably the most creative aspect of the undertaking, more stimulating than the supposed novelty of the newly constituted “21st-century” orchestra, for which shrill claims were made in an actual manifesto. (For instance, “Talk of ‘acoustics’ is a tyranny and a sham, used to entrench conservative forms”. Or “Anniversaries are for lazy programmers”. Well, I agree with that.)
The LCMF Orchestra had a familiar enough look when it gave the British premiere, under Jack Sheen, of Chaya Czernowin’s Day One: On the Face of the Deep — a dense, static, microtonal continuum, evoking Genesis — but not when it premiered “breadthbreath”, commissioned from Elaine Mitchener. Here the players, standing, were diffused through the audience, with Sheen conducting them (though doing hardly anything) from a balcony. They were as hard to make out in the dim throng as their repertory of nebulous noises was difficult to decipher. Beginning with Sheen, they exited one by one, each softly blowing a whistle. This granting to each item of a particular configuration in the hall had a genuine vitality. The British premiere of Julius Eastman’s oddly disconnected diptych, The Prelude and Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc (1981), was, in its first part, a jittery, sustained monody delivered by the singer Sofia Jernberg from a balcony; then the recreation of the Holy Presence took the form of a considerably extended, richly harmonic interplay of 10 cellos (the experimental group Apartment House) sitting in an arc on the main floor.
In this position earlier, eight horn players had been ranged with a wind-machine player at either end for the world premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Destruction of Sodom. The portentous title suggested a momentous outburst, but the brief piece proved as exiguous as it was eccentric — the horns merely repeating a few dry, little, loud figures while the wind machinists bid fair to give themselves arm-ache.