Classical: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre Adrian Boult Hall / Midlands Arts Centre

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The Independent Culture
It probably wasn't the intention, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's latest offering seemed nothing less than a survey of the current state of British classical music - and very welcome it was too. Where else, bar a specialist festival, could you hear Knussen, Beamish, Weir and Harvey rubbing shoulders, with Boulez and Stravinsky thrown in to point the contrasts? Yet, despite the challenging repertoire, one of the most encouraging aspects of the evening was the size and variety of the audience.

The number of players, though, was relatively small. That, combined with some razor-sharp directing by Stefan Asbury, ensured a high level of concentration. The night's premiere was Sally Beamish's A Book of Seasons, a kind of miniature violin concerto. After the rich variety of blend and brilliance in Oliver Knussen's Two Organa, the tendency toward upper- register sonorities in Beamish's new work left the ear yearning for greater warmth. The use of the solo violin, superbly played by Lyn Fletcher, was undoubtedly brilliant, but far too often - and perhaps this was due to a multi-section format within the confines of a relatively short work - expectations were raised without always being fulfilled.

But second performances often lead to reassessment. Luckily the practice of repetition seems almost a mission statement with BCMG. A prime beneficiary was Judith Weir's Musicians Wrestle Everywhere: not only was it more confidently performed than at its premiere, it also emerged as a much more fibrous work. The amiable understatement apparent at its first outing seems to have concealed a firmer superstructure; further performances will doubtless reveal more. Perspective is always instructive and the presence of Boulez's Derive I provided an illuminating blast from the recent modernist past. From further back came Stravinsky's Two Poems of Balmont and Three Japanese Lyrics, sung with beautifully veiled tone by Sarah Leonard, proving that, whatever the company, some pieces always sound contemporary.

Acoustic music is only one aspect of today's sound-world, however. Two days later, Beast (Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre) unleashed Rumours 96, its third annual series at Midland Arts Centre. With sounds diffused through loudspeakers and barely a hint of human intervention in performance, the medium can seem intimidating, even irrelevant. And, in the first half of Sunday night's concert, this seemed for much of the time to be the case.

Perhaps it was the interval, but the two works in the second half lifted the experience on to a much more approachable plane. Unlike his breathtakingly opaque programme note, Stephane Roy's Crystal Music drew the listener in and engaged consistently in what felt like true musical development. Jonty Harrison's long and demanding Hot Air wrought a similar magic with clear images from day-to-day experience worked out with remarkable lucidity. Despite a tendency towards the verbose, this engaging piece gave persuasive evidence that the medium still has much to say.

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