MUSIC: The nature of the beast: Jan Smaczny on three premieres in Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
February has proved a kindly month for contemporary music in Birmingham. BBC's Pebble Mill winter series saw the premiere of Nigel Osborne's Sarajevo and the Birmingham Chamber Music Society fielded the first performance of Malcolm Williamson's Third String Quartet. Sandwiched in between, BEAST (Birmingham Electra Acoustic Sound Theatre) came to MAC (Midlands Arts Centre) to crown the last of their 'Rumours' series with a newly commissioned work by Adrian Hunter.

Malcolm Williamson's new quartet could hardly have had better company. Not only did it rub shoulders with Haydn and Beethoven, its context was expanded - all credit to the Birmingham Chamber Music Society's programme planning - by the presence of Peter Sculthorpe's Sixth Quartet. These days, no one expects shocks from contemporary chamber music and neither of the two 20th-century works came anywhere near ruffling feathers.

Neatly structured and engaging musically, Malcolm Williamson's new work was an object lesson in the use of the medium. But beyond the undoubted skill with which the composer handled the instruments and material there was little sense that either performers or listeners had been stretched by the experience the work provided. Perhaps, also, the whole could have spread itself wider, across a broader canvas.

BEAST is not a body that could be said to chose the easy route of compromise. In fact, few routes are easy where electro-acoustic music is concerned; for all its 45 years of concentrated endeavour, the medium remains somewhat marginal, even to fairly seasoned concert-goers.

BEAST's monthly run of concerts at the Midlands Arts Centre has opted for the bold course of total immersion with evenings devoted entirely to the electro-acoustic medium. Doubtless it's about time that this medium commanded a hearing on its own terms, although the point at which a valuable creative and educational exercise turns into ghettoising is a tricky one to judge.

Part of the problem with presenting electro-acoustic music is the monolithic nature of a stage filled by loudspeakers rather than mobile musicians. BEAST has graduated through the series from an interpretative lightshow to simple coloured spotlights. The latter is much more effective in letting the music speak for itself. The result, as was clear from their last concert, was a persuasive sense of concert- building. Shortish pieces made their effect and created an interestingly precise context for their newcomer, Adrian Hunter's Vista. The fact that the new work seemed a touch disjointed and, at times, even cliched, was a measure of the coherence the medium has achieved.

The most urgent of these premieres was Nigel Osborne's Sarajevo. As an aid worker he has experienced the horror that most of us only skim through with two minutes of documentary a day. Even so, the message he brings us is a strangely heartening one. In a city where comfort in life has been conclusively squeezed out, the artist has become not so much balm as a lifeline for the spirit.

Sarajevo, a trio for piano, clarinet and cello, expertly performed by members of Capricorn, is, unsurprisingly, a sombre and disquietening meditation touched, at times, by the sounds of that saddest of cities. It also contains moments of haunting beauty and the whole, though dark, makes compelling and repeatable listening.

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