A quick skim through Bachtrack’s 2018 statistics will reveal a more than sedentary attitude towards programming. The most performed living composer, Arvo Pärt, only entered the fray at number 46, whilst his female counterpart, Kaija Saariaho, was ranked a staggering 190th. It was, then, with some relief that I joined a packed audience at the Royal Festival Hall for the first in multiple offerings from SoundState – the Southbank Centre’s brand-new festival, committed exclusively to performing new music.

Marin Alsop © Adriane White
Marin Alsop
© Adriane White

Marin Alsop guided the London Philharmonic through a labyrinth of soundworlds, from Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Solstalgia for piccolo and orchestra – an acerbic lament to human destruction of the planet – to a boisterous and infinitely evil portrait of Ancient Greek war games in Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon. The latter left me in tatters when, at its climax, the spectral voice of Kassandra (daughter of the defeated King Priam) echoed around the hall, quoting desolate words from Aeschylus’ play of the same name: “Joy was not less pathetic than the worst grief”. This, fused with Andriessen’s signature jazz-inflected harmony, ingeniously off-kilter drumming patterns and erratic stabs from an electric guitar made for a unique and evocative foray into Greek tragedy.

But it was the opening two works – both world premieres – that really caught my ear. Burr by German-born Arne Gieshoff is a beautifully short, prickly thing – apparently written whilst Geishoff grappled with the eponymous puzzle. Liberal use of glissandi in cellos and muted trombones complement a wonderful array of flatulent (for lack of a better word) brass effects – perhaps a latent nod to Scott Bradley’s scores to Tom and Jerry. Yet there is no self-indulgence in Gieshoff's writing. Each note plays its part as required, before politely excusing itself with a pop. One can also hear the influence of two of his mentors, Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews. Indeed, Burr is a masterpiece of wit and compression, and despite being the youngest of the composers featured in last night’s concert, Geishoff showed perhaps the most maturity.

If Gieshoff’s piece is a masterpiece of compression then Anders Hillborg’s Sound Atlas, performed immediately afterwards, is a masterpiece of diplomacy. The work simultaneously inhabits two soundworlds: watery drones and tantric Romantic harmony are expertly reconciled with violent Bartók pizzicati and dense combinations of artificial-harmonic clusters. The last of its five movements – the string-only Hymn – smacks powerfully of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (the two composers were in fact featured together on Decca’s Distant Light in 2017). Yet throughout the piece harmonic terra firma is subtly swept from underneath one’s feet as clouds of Ligetian dissonance descend. This potent combination of accessibility and complexity makes for an irresistible listening experience.

Another world premiere – this time Helen Grime’s Percussion Concerto – rounded off what had by this point become an epic feat of concentration from Alsop. Dense cross rhythms abound in this beautifully crafted showcase for Grime’s talents as a composer and orchestrator. Colin Currie, for whom the concerto was written, leapt between multiple percussion instruments, battled with the strings and fended off fiercely difficult marimba passages without breaking a sweat.

I truly believe each work performed last night is worthy of a place in posterity – and I take great encouragement from the quality, range and individuality evinced by each composer featured. If such a culture continues to be nurtured, perhaps the scourge of conservative programming can be wiped out for good. Certainly amongst my peers there has been a renewed interest in contemporary music, and the steady emergence of festivals like the LCMF, Baroque at the Edge and now SoundState is a sure sign composers are beginning to get the platform they deserve. Let’s hope that next year’s Bachtrack statistics reflect this trend.

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