There was no doubt that for this concert, one had to enter the front door with a completely open mind. The aim of the Contemporary Music Venture is to promote contemporary music to a wider audience, in an hour and for free – an honourable challenge.

Members of the Contemporary Music Venture; photo by Philippa Walker, University of Bristol
Members of the Contemporary Music Venture; photo by Philippa Walker, University of Bristol

This was set to be their first concert of the year. There were four premières from the University of Bristol’s Music Department and works by composers such as Cage and Ligeti. One had to empathise with the performers, as despite the splendour of the venue, it disadvantaged the performance in a couple of ways. Firstly, it was difficult to hear the soloists due to the sound bouncing off all the walls of the building. Secondly, the large heater had to be turned off in order for the concert to be audible, and it did get bitterly cold towards the second half of the concert. Despite these drawbacks, it was still an enlightening evening.

The concert opened with Cage’s A Flower, written for voice and accompanied by passages for closed piano lid. The different phonemes (“uh”, “wah”, and so on) of the voice were clear, and Bethan Waters’ performance was moving. This was the one work that was enhanced by the acoustics of the church giving each note a wonderful resonance, though it would have been improved if Waters’ voice had been projected towards the audience. It was a bold programme choice with which to open, but Waters gave A Flower her own angle from Cage’s famously tricky scores, especially as she was not only singing but knocking on a closed piano.

Midway through the concert, we were told we were going to be surrounded by eight speakers to listen to the recently deceased composer Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuous plango, vivos voco. The work is a reflection of his experiences with the big bell at Winchester Cathederal. We were listening to the eight-channel version, which required the speakers to be against each wall in the venue. They had been placed a little too close (probably due to the pillars) and as a result as all of the audience weren’t able to sit in the right spot to appreciate the full soundscape – I myself was placed right next to a speaker and so the idea of being in the middle of the sound-wall of the bell was rather lost. It did provide an interesting break in live performance on stage and the piece itself was a hypnotic electronic mix of vocals and bells. It isn’t often you find yourself in a concert huddled between eight speakers, and for me it was more of a sound installation than a concert performance, but still a great musical experience.

One of the most captivating pieces of the evening was Béla Kovács’ solo clarinet piece called Hommage à Manuel de Falla. Clarinettist Luis Ingles played with incredible style, speed and grace. Despite being a short piece, it was technically demanding on Ingles and his technique was impressive. I wanted his clarinet to be out from his body and more towards the audience, as it was a struggle to hear some of the more quiet passages, but it was nonetheless a great performance and it was injected with Ingles’ personality.

Each of the premières performed in the evening had been composed specifically for the concert. There was a large variety of different styles of composition, including an ambitious piece called The Remains of Our Lives by Julian Leeks, with an electronic backing track by Aaron May. Manos Charalabopoulos, composer and pianist, wrote Upon Westminster Bridge for piano and soprano, based on the poem by William Wordsworth. His excellent use of word-painting captured the scenery of London, particularly in the climactic words “never did sun more beautifully steep”. The style of composition was reminiscent of Debussyesque dreamlike atonality, fused with sparse suspensions, and was just wonderful. Pianist Richard Gillies gave his best performance in this piece. He has a style of playing that suits ethereal and atmospheric music, due to the way he presses the keys. The words really added a structure and helped shape the music for both the performers and the listeners.

The evening’s programme mix was eclectic, varied and bold. It was a fresh experience and I came away wishing more concerts would play new music. Some of the pieces were a little too experimental for my liking but that is inevitable with new music as it is so subject to personal taste. Anyone with a classical ear just has to keep his or her mind open.