Arts: Classical - A birthday spread to feast on

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The Independent Culture
SONORITIES, IRELAND'S most important festival of contemporary music, is now firmly established in the big league. Annual since 1995, and now expanded to a very full week of concerts, workshops and talks, a major feature is the presentation of an impressive range of newly commissioned works. World premieres of compositions by Blomqvist, Ian Wilson, Fergus Johnston, Kevin Volans and Jonty Harrison framed the centrepiece of the festival, a celebration of Jonathan Harvey's 60th birthday and, among much else, the UK premiere of his "Death of Light". Integral to this was the vital presence of the astonishing percussionist, Jonny Axelsson.

The proceedings got off to an inspiring start with an acute, expressive performance of Messiaen's "Chants de terre et de ciel" by Alison Wells, accompanied with blistering virtuosity by Martyn Parry. After the radiant commitment of this opening, the Ulster Orchestra's concert the following night was something of disappointment. Nancarrow's "Piece", ringing and refreshing, proved a fine overture, but the orchestra's rendition of Stravinsky's Symphony in C was pallid and lacking in pungency.

At a first hearing, Ian Wilson's saxophone concerto Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?, a BBC commission for the Festival, offered little of which to be afraid. The magnificently sustained tone of the soloist, Gerard McChrystal was a treat, but the work didn't really seem to explore the full range of the saxophone's potential, and despite some well defined gestures at the start and end, there was little on which an audience could fasten.

There was more to get the teeth into the following night, not least some more superb saxophone playing from Adam Melvin and Paul Dunmall. The latter was featured in a number of Brian Irvine's band compositions, a blend of jazz, improvisation, and firmly tonal ground basses, with hints of Stravinsky and Satie, which doubtless would have had Adorno spinning in his grave. But the astonishing fertility of his work, and the visceral excitement of his performances, produced a compulsively inclusive event that made many friends for contemporary music.

The first of the London Sinfonietta's two concerts - their debut in Ireland - was given over mainly to the music of Jonathan Harvey: "Death of Light", superbly concise and eloquent, and "Bhakti", bursting with imagination, if somewhat overextended. Their second outing brought radiant performances of Birtwistle's "Silbury Air" and David Sawyer's evocative, and near-tonal "Good Night". Kevin Volans new, two-violin concerto was strong on fascinating timbre, but his tendency to fasten on short-breathed ideas tended to limit rather than release the imagination.

In the cause of extending the sound spectrum, a major component in Sonorities is electroacoustic repertoire, and it was well represented by such classics as Harvey's palate cleansing "Mortuo Piango Vivus Voco" and Harrison's "Klang". There was also a premiere in the shape of Jonty Harrison's "Streams", a magnificently sustained study in water imagery. The concluding concert with the Irish Chamber Orchestra proved as strongly etched as the first: superbly incisive performances of appealing, accessible contemporary Irish string music crowned by a stirring reading of Lutoslawski's "Preludes" and "Fugue".