At a time when some music festivals face an uncertain future, it would seem almost reckless to be launching a new biennial festival of contemporary music. However, Fuse Leeds 04 has begun with several advantages: a strong sense of place exploiting several venues in Leeds; extensive Radio 3 coverage; a vibrant mix of jazz, classical, world and popular music; and a refreshingly distinct and personal guiding vision from its artistic director, Django Bates.
The main concert of the festival's opening day, featuring the London Sinfonietta conducted by Martyn Brabbins in no fewer than five world premieres, effortlessly embraced the worlds of jazz, classical, rock and song. Ernst Kovacic brought considerable artistry to Bates's new work, subtitled "umpteenth violin concerto", a reference to the ever-increasing number of examples in the genre.
The opening solo, with its witty and natural fusion of jazz and classical, was a canny encapsulation not only of the piece, but also the spirit of the festival. The ghost of traditional forms flickered within the mixture, including a scherzo-like passage, songlike slow movement, knowingly academic fugal section and jazzy gigue-like finale. A hugely enjoyable work, it deserves repeated hearings, despite its self-effacing subtitle.
Markus Stockhausen's new arrangement of his Portrait for Tara for solo basset horn and ensemble pulsed with Schönbergian Expressionist power, exploiting the full range of the instrument, from sepulchral burbling to keening lyricism. In one memorable section, the soloist, Tara Bouman, muted the bell with her foot, creating gloriously smoky sonorities that were gratefully taken up by the double bassist. The exultant, convulsive coda was a delightful pay-off to this rewarding series of vibrant vignettes.
A birthday tribute to Evan Parker, entitled Premature Celebration, made a classy pièce d'occasion. Sixty composers had each contributed one bar of music, which Bates wove into one piece. Its provenance inevitably rendered the result somewhat varied, but the towering musicianship of its dedicatee, improvising with the drummer Paul Lytton, made it all hang together.
Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood contributed Smear, a ravishingly scored musical love-letter to the eerie allure of the ondes Martenot, while the Sinfonietta transformed itself into the ultimate backing group for Bates's arrangements of two unaffectedly touching folk songs by Kate Rusby.
The players and Brabbins deserve enormous credit for taking so many stylistic challenges in their stride, but it was Bates's evening. He proved a charming master of ceremonies, as well as a prodigiously gifted composer and arranger.
Fuse Leeds 04 could not have got off to a better start. The large, enthusiastic audience at this flagship concert augured well for the rest of the festival. Shrewdly programmed at a time when festivals are thin on the ground, it has earned the right to be thought of as a highlight in the arts calendar.
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