LSO Futures, the Barbican’s triennial festival of new and contemporary music, has taken “space” as its theme for this year. The principal concert event in this five-day gathering consisted of varied and often very effective music that rose and fell in quality, but ultimately ended with a reminder of the priceless power of an original vision.

Simon Halsey conducting the public domain
© Doug Peters

The evening began in the Barbican’s foyers with the UK premiere of David Lang’s the public domain, given by the London Symphony Chorus and the LSO Community Choir. It was a piece with both intimately human and epic ambition, written for 500 voices with a message of togetherness couched in music which began in mutters and ended in choral splendour. Choral Director Simon Halsey was assisted by no fewer than ten subordinate leaders, cueing their sections with megaphones to manage the distribution of sound at different points and levels in the huge Barbican foyer. As the piece moved through its just over half-hour running time, both paying audience and bystanders found themselves drawn forward, following the singers until they descended to the level of the Barbican Hall below ground, where a second conductor’s podium was set up for Halsey to lead the other half.

The piece divides into 12 parts which repeat and shuffle around fragments of the brief and ambiguous text. Lang employed a “crowd-sourcing” method for his texts, inspired by ideas of what unites a crowd and makes a community; the public domain thus drew inspiration from searching the hive-mind of the internet for auto-completed answers to the question: “One thing we all have is our…” The music was similarly, and very effectively, basic, with swirling repetitions around a simple note or phrase, incorporating chanting and rhythmic clapping; combined with the slow and ritualistic procession made by the performers, it recalled the elemental power of Gregorian Chant combined with a contemporary positive-vibes street protest. A programme note by Lang stated that this is music “designed for the entire community we live in, so it doesn’t require music professionals, although they are welcome. Performers and audience should be indistinguishable from each other.”

Lang’s piece is virtually criticism-proof since it is impossible to tell how much of the seeming chaos is intended and how much an inevitable result of 500 singers in groups singing different but similar parts of a text and gradually converging as they do so. It was nonetheless a sometimes electrifying and for many deeply affecting experience – looking around at the closing, swelling heights of the piece, many had been brought to tears.

François-Xavier Roth conducting the LSO
© Doug Peters

Following this out-of-the-ordinary opener, the paying audience took seats in the Barbican Hall for a mostly conventional setting for the remaining pieces. Led by François-Xavier Roth, the London Symphony Orchestra presented the UK premiere of French composer Philippe Manoury’s Ring. With the orchestra distributed throughout all three levels of the concert hall, Manoury’s stated aim with the piece was apparently to “create a sound paradigm that has not yet been attempted”. Whether or not the idea of placing the orchestra at different points in the hall is entirely original or not, it quickly became apparent that this “sound paradigm” was not enough to save a piece that was largely ineffective, drawing too obviously on the sounds of Messiaen, Boulez and perhaps Stockhausen, while having little involving to offer.

Without contrast, Manoury’s piece was deafly in love with its own harsh ingenuities and to the exclusion of lightness or humour, all of which Kafka’s Dream, a world premiere written by London-based South Korean Donghoon Shin, possessed in abundance. Even during the darker and anxiety-riddled passages, which were abundant, Kafka’s Dream possessed an elegance and a strange charm that carried it through its three brisk movements, each different from the last. Where Manoury’s piece threatened to end innumerable times and never seemed to, this new piece new precisely where it was going and was a pleasure to keep up with.

Scriabin’s Symphony no. 4, “The Poem of Ecstasy” closed the concert, in a deft and wonderfully judged reading that allowed the piece’s ecstatic and overwhelming finale to sink deep into an audience softened up by a varied couple of hours of sound. Roth led the LSO in a knife-edge performance that never slackened, finely hewn enough to paint the piece’s weird sonata-form in vivid shapes while releasing the mystical power contained in its contrasts – energetic striving and sensuous, reclining calm. It was a beautiful performance, leaving the hall filled with the reminder of how different one, inspired composer can make the world sound and seem.