Here's a little test. Is Floof! (a) a cleaning product, (b) the sound made by an asthmatic kitten, (c) a suburb of Helsinki, or (d) a new festival of contemporary music that, in a city completely saturated with this stuff, can still attract an audience more diverse in age and ethnicity than any similar event in Britain? The answer, of course, is (d), though to that could be added (e) the closest approximation to "love" that a cyberpoet with over-loaded software can make, and (f) the musically meretricious, cod-philosophical inspired showcase for kamikaze, sorry, coloratura soprano (Anu Komsi) and amplified instruments by Esa-Pekka Salonen from which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's four-day festival drew its name.
For cynics, the comic potential in a Finn-dominated festival where every work was preceded by a cosy chat between conductor and composer was virtually unlimited. On the one hand we had Music Director Sakari Oramo's breathless, boundless, exclamation-marked, MTV enthusiasm and Magnus Lindberg's swaggering self-confidence, on the other Simon Holt's shy self-deprecation and Composer-in-Association Julian Anderson's Oxbridge diffidence. (A diffidence transformed into startling conviction when intoning Hebrew.) If the programme notes were custom-made for parody, what of the speeches? "I am me and, erm... we are us..." said composer Philippe Schoeller elliptically of Totems; a work drawn from five "sound visions" he experienced on waking during the night of 3 February, 2000 and, in common with his explanation, redolent of The Beatles' more Stockhausen-esque moments. Pretentious, non? Non. Though some works in Floof! had a whiff of self-regard about them - most notably Floof! itself, Lindberg's Twine, and Hanspeter Kyburz's Eötvös-ian Noesis, which was written following mathematical formulae for horticulture and sounded like it - the most remarkable aspect of this festival was its honesty. There's nothing quite like seeing the creator of a work at its performance to remind you that composing is a matter of laying your heart on the line. And if cadences just miss, if ideas fail to coalesce or convince, this is work in progress. Floof! (the festival) is not pretentious at all. It's a model of inclusivity.
Though world-premieres were thin on the ground, much of the music (barring Anderson's Alhambra Fantasy, which seems to be attaining modern-canon status, and Ligeti's magnificent Lontano, which already has) was entirely new to me. The Lisztian qualities in Alhambra Fantasy, which Anderson wrote without ever seeing the Alhambra, still seem at odds with its air of dutifully ticking the requisite variety of orchestral mood-boxes. Which made Shir Hashirim - beautifully declaimed by soprano Anu Komsi and the CBSO the following day - all the more surprising. Anderson never loses control (if he did it might be more exciting) but this response to the text of the Song of Songs is arrestingly rich and expressive and the first of his works where I've felt that technique is even partially matched by emotional connection. Mauricio Kagel's Double Sextet, by contrast, was a dry reworking of post-serial ground already covered by the neo-classicists, however winningly played by BCMG's tireless virtuosi. But few in that evening's audience would have wanted anything else after Holt's eco-pavan (1998); a shimmering, shadowy, succinct and reverberant mini-concerto for pianist Rolf Hind that bodes well for this summer's Aldeburgh/Almeida premiere of his opera Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm? Radio 3 microphones were present throughout, so keep your eyes on the schedules for Floof!