I can’t claim to have much prior experience of Mark Bowden – save for a few whispers amongst the au courant of my university’s music department, and a vague sense of some well received discs which, as is so often the case, I never got round to listening to. But as the final movement of his Sapiens sputtered into nothingness, leaving an enraptured audience grappling with the speculative message of Yuval Noah Harari’s second book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, I felt both foolish to have overlooked Bowden’s music, and deeply fortunate to be present for the world première of this, his latest work.

Jessica Cottis © Kaupo Kikkas
Jessica Cottis
© Kaupo Kikkas

Those who have read either Sapiens or Homo Deus may find it unlikely that Harari’s decidedly academic account of our species’ 200,000 year history could provide inspiration for a soprano saxophone concerto – although one only has to look to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra to find an equally improbable transfiguration. In Sapiens, rather than attempting to illustrate the entire narrative arc of the two books, Bowden uses five smaller stories contained within their pages as the starting point for each of his concerto’s five movements. 

In the first, Talking Ghosts, the exceptional soloist Simon Haram, for whom the work was written, danced sphinx-like around the accompanying members of the London Sinfonietta, an ancient shaman attempting to conjure the spirits of the world. By the third movement, Shells and Cigarettes, the two entities began to play in rhythmic unison, driven forward by pulsing strings reminiscent of those in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: humanity now marches to the drum of currency, whether that be shells, cigarettes or dollars.

But despite these compelling programmatic elements, what struck me most about the work was its ability to communicate the ineffable. Its expressive power seems to lie in the way it moulds to our complex patchwork of human emotions. I could hear my own voice crying out in frustration as Haram reached the acerbic climax of his extended solo passage in Imagined Order. In Empty Maps, flashes of pure joy were beamed down into the audience, suddenly giving way to uncertainty and frantic momentum. The work is human at its very core, expertly conveying the enigma of our turbulent emotional lives. Conductor Jessica Cottis, very much one to watch, lead the ensemble expertly, and proved to be as vital a conduit for Bowden’s musical language as Haram.

After the interval we heard the late Oliver Knussen’s collection of short pieces Songs without voices. Written in 1992, the work reflects a period of Knussen’s career in which he experienced renewed enthusiasm for song writing, and although the last in this set of immaculately performed miniatures conjured some sense of the loss felt by Knussen on hearing of the death of Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik, I remained unconvinced of their effectiveness as songs – to me a form which must clearly and concisely communicate a singular message using a sparsity of musical material. I cannot agree with Colin Matthews’ comment on the night that the work is a “miracle of compression”: rather, I felt lost amongst its scattered collection of superficial utterances.  

The evening concluded with a second world premiere, this time from compositional stalwart Colin Matthews, whose new work As Time Returns sets a series of bewildering poems by Czech exile Ivan Blatny. Baritone George Humphreys captured the surreal, witty romanticism of Blatny’s verse perfectly, and Matthews’ score was dotted with beautifully crafted textures, but ultimately both words and music proved too often impenetrable, especially with ears still in withdrawal from Bowden’s enchanting soundworld.

I took with me on Friday night a thespian friend who, knowing little about contemporary classical music, was keen to explore new artistic territory. Today the same friend texted me to say he’d been listening to one of Bowden’s discs the whole weekend, which was good to hear, but not a surprise – I expect we’ll be hearing plenty more from this composer.

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