Arts: Classical: A case for the unfamiliar

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THERE HAS been a wealth of good things in Huddersfield's "Festival of the unfamiliar", as Richard Steinitz dubbed this year's 12-day jamboree, which concluded last Sunday. Among these was the attention paid to work not designed for the concert hall or which, when presented in a conventional performing space, employs technology as an integral part of the experience.

These territories can also shade over into the educational and community projects that have been an important fest- ival feature for a number of years but which, like the installations and performance- art activities, don't often catch the limelight.

Not all such events I saw this year were satisfying artistic experiences. Castle Hill, a Victorian folly outside Huddersfield, has an interesting history, but Nye Parry's Living Steam installation - an intriguing collage of industrial sounds and commentaries - left the building's dour and somewhat mysterious atmosphere to make most of the impact.

Ray Lee's Swing: Change Ringing with Loudspeakers, on the other hand, activated the soulless modern space of the Hudawi Centre with a fascinating counterpoint of sound and light, its 16 human-controlled loudspeaker cones suspended from the ceiling producing constantly shifting patterns that held the attention even when you didn't add a further layer to the perspective yourself by pacing the floor beneath them.

Back in the concert hall, the Arditti String Quarter provided a focus for the festival's central days; I caught riveting, surely perfect performances of Ligeti's Second Quartet and Xenakis's Tetras.

Why on earth is Huddersfield almost alone among the musical institutions of this country in consistently nurturing and celebrating this major ensemble of our times, not least in its 25th-anniversary year?

A whole review should really be devoted to the Finnish segments of the 1999 festival, with complete programmes devoted respectively to Magnus Lindberg (who was in residence for a couple of days) and Kaija Saariaho. The subtlety of harmony and gesture as well as textural ingenuity of the latter's recent Lonh for soprano (Pia Freude) and electronics has just been recognised in the award of the prestigious Nordic Music Prize.

Only another separate review could begin to unravel the delightful complexities of Georges Aperghis's Zwielicht (Twilight): music theatre of rare finesse performed with astonishing skill by the actor Jozef Houhen and Ensemble Recherche from Germany.

This pair of ears were also seized by two idiosyncratically wild and wacky composers living in Holland.

The 46-year-old Dutchman Cornelis de Bondt's Doors Closed (played by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble under Thierry Fischer) and The Broken Ear (performed by Psappha and conducted by Nicholas Kok) rework Beethoven and Purcell, and in the second case Schoerberg, into extended but consistently intriguing statements. Richard Ayres - age 34, English-born, Huddersfield-taught but now resident in the Netherlands - offers seriously deranged and dislocated takes on a variety of generally simple materials in the two compositions performed by Apartment House. Neither composer will, I suspect, be to very many people's taste, but I found their commentaries on the post-modern condition extremely compelling.

Keith Potter