Classical: A near-perfect landing
Wednesday 02 December 1998
THE 21ST Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival concluded on Sunday with Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's Hindenburg. Drawing on images of German general who gave his name to the infamous zeppelin, an unfinished version was seen at the Barbican a year ago. This was the British premiere of the complete, half-hour piece; though it is just the first act of a "documentary video opera" entitled Three Tales, the two subsequent acts of which promise more direct confrontation with the trilogy's underlying "debate about the physical, ethical, religious and spiritual nature of... expanding technological development".
With a certain irony, Three Tales takes advantage of recent advances in video technology to manipulate archival footage on a single screen in highly malleable ways. Though strictly speaking a "concert performance" - lacking the rudimentary staging included at the Barbican - what we saw in Huddersfield provided more than sufficient to engage both eye and ear.
Korot's deft and individual deployment of the remarkable results of her archival researches and Reich's long-familiar ability to conjure real contrapuntal drama out of simple materials activated by rhythmic repetition complement each other perfectly to produce results that are compelling both on a moment-to-moment level and as an unfolding structure. In the first of the new scenes, for example, "Nibelung Zeppelin", footage of the airship under construction is accompanied by music based on the Anvil motif from Wagner's Das Rheingold: a response still surprising from a composer originally renowned (if not entirely accurately) for his avoidance of such emotive references. The effect of this allusion was appropriately disturbing, its amusement value caught in a sinister light enhanced by the lowering presence of a deep dominant pedal point.
As a whole, Hindenburg retains a degree of narrative thread to which Reich's music responds with impressively cumulative effect, though - perhaps understandably, given its function in the complete work to come - it seems to stop abruptly rather than conclude matters. The one aberration aside, all the performances in this all-Reich Town Hall programme - the lion's share taken by Ensemble Bash, and the conductor Nichola s Kok - were excellent.
In the course of the final weekend of what by all accounts has been a notably successful festival this year, I also particularly admired Music Theatre Wales' production of Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, already seen elsewhere, and Richard Casey and Nicolas Hodges' noble assault on an alarmingly varied sequence of compositions for two pianists. This included the European premiere of John Adams' Hallelujah Junction, a substantial 15-minute piece, the contrapuntal virtuosity and emotional complexity of which restored my faith in this composer after the disappointment of his recent piano concerto.
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