The late composer Jonathan Harvey, who died last month at age 73, described his Speakings (2008) as the most complicated and ambitious work he had ever written. A 25-minute composition for orchestra and electronics, the piece certainly warrants that description on the levels of scale and logistics alone. Add in the fact that Speakings was conceived in collaboration with a team of engineers at IRCAM, who as part of its larger research focus on speech analysis developed an audio signal processing technique called shape vocoding that would allow Harvey to make the sound of an instrument or an orchestra take on characteristics of the human voice, and the work becomes even more impressive. However, the icing on the cake is that Harvey, in this piece, manages to make the orchestra “speak”. As the composition unfolds, the ensemble discovers its voice: it enters cooing, gurgling, and screaming like a baby; gradually works toward the rhythms and pitches of articulate speech; and departs singing a calm, sustained chant. It’s as if the orchestra is a person going through the different stages of life, taking on different characters and trying to find its own voice along the way.

The Ligeti Quartet performing Hay Fever by Laura Bowler at the Purcell Room
The Ligeti Quartet performing Hay Fever by Laura Bowler at the Purcell Room

Neither Harvey’s voice nor this orchestral voice was heard on Friday night at this final concert of the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series 2013. Nonetheless, Harvey’s spirit was clearly present in this eclectic programme, which emphasised colourful characters and contrasting voices, both musically and dramatically. The most immediate contrast was in the juxtaposition of performances by guitarist Paul Norman and the Ligeti Quartet, both winners of the Park Lane Group’s Young Artist auditions in Spring 2012. Alternating performances in both halves, together they delivered a programme of contemporary music featuring two pieces by Harvey alongside performances of works by two other composers with whom he had identified as feeling a special affinity: György Ligeti and Ed Hughes, as well as works by several other composers.

The programme explored the many different characters and voices of the various instruments, while maintaining an underlying continuity through intimacy of expression, highlighted by the warm acoustics of the Purcell Room. Norman moved easily from the jazz and folk influences of Joe Cutler’s Guitar Music (2010) to the Middle-Eastern feel of Harvey’s Sufi Dance (1997), which used an alternative tuning with two strings a fifth-tone sharp, two strings a fifth-tone flat, and two strings at standard tuning, to create an intriguing beating in the harmonies. Norman’s ability to bring out the contrasting characters and voices of his instrument came through most clearly in Hughes’ Summer Light (2012), a collection of four short studies that moved between a contemplative space created by a steady, but not quite predictable, flow of arpeggiated major harmonies and an energetic, agitated soundworld with rapid blurs of notes rushing into thick, dissonant strumming. Norman makes the guitar sing out Hughes’ rich harmonic colours, and it is alternately bright and mellow, beckoning and undulating, shimmering and violent.

The Ligeti Quartet also demonstrated their range in their performances, leaping between extremes of musical personality. Both the Harvey and the Ligeti string quartets (1989 and 1968, respectively) demanded a range of techniques: the former moved between flickering harmonics to bow ricochets, and the latter between mechanical pizzicato patterns going in and out of phase with each other in the third movement to explosive outbursts of sound in the fourth. Said the composer, “If this movement is played properly, a low of bow hair will be loose by the end,” and indeed, all but the first violinist had to pluck loose hairs of their bow before proceeding into the quiet but urgent last movement.

For all the quartet’s achievements in these two works, however, the highlight of their performance – and the epitome of this concert’s focus on characterisation – was unquestionably Laura Bowler’s Hay Fever (2012), based on the final scene of Noël Coward’s 1924 comic play of the same name. In this highly original work, the musicians took on the role of the four weekend guests of the Bliss family in the play. They sat around a table set for breakfast, pouring each other cups of tea and taking sips throughout the piece. Their scores were hidden behind large newspapers on their music stands, creating the effect that the musicians were reading the morning news as they chatted and argued over breakfast. Except instead of speaking with their voices, they were speaking through their instruments, all the while using body language, facial expression, and sound effects to tell the audience about their character’s attitude or position. The effect was of watching a sort of musical play that explored the relationship between the musical voice and the human voice, between musical gesture and bodily gesture, between musical expression and verbal expression.

Thus this concert brought into focus the theme of Harvey’s Speakings: the discovery of one’s own voice. As Harvey suggested in Speakings, it’s a project that can take a lifetime. The young artists and emerging composers featured in this programme demonstrated myriad shades and colours of their musical voices – a brave task in this intimate setting. As their careers grow and flourish, it will be fascinating to hear what they speak through their musical voices.