The Sonorities Festival, Belfast

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Taste and style in contemporary music have fragmented so much in recent years that we might be entitled to ask whether "modernism" has fled the stage entirely. A host of other apparently more seductive "isms", not least minimalism, have provided composers with more easeful bridges to the affections of their audiences. As far as Belfast's Sonorities Festival is concerned, modernism is still very much on the agenda. Recently, this now-annual event has maintained its reputation as one of the most challenging contemporary music festivals in the country by surveying the state of the modernist experiment: last year it was the turn of Germany, this year of France and Italy.

Perhaps working on the assumption that Tavener, Schnittke and Part were tough enough for a large Belfast audience, the Ulster Orchestra's opening concert stood aside from the weekend's main theme. Free entry, courtesy of Radio 3's "Sounding the Century", was undoubtedly an incentive for timorous neophytes, but the good news for Ulster Orchestra's planners was that not only did the audience turn out in droves, it stayed after the interval. The real novelty in the concert was the premiere of Michael Alcorn's BBC commission, Macha's Curse. Though founded in folklore, the result was a long way from the usual misty and contemplative response to Celtic myth: a bold and brassy reimaging of Stravinsky makes up the first part - heavy and relentless, but with a genuine sense of harmonic momentum; the final catharsis, magically outlined by alto flute, seemed, at a first hearing, a little too brief in proportion to the rest.

What was clear from the orchestra's committed performance, directed with infectious enthusiasm by Charles Hazlewood, was that the Waterfront Hall is an excellent space for contemporary music, offering clarity of texture as well as a credible blend of multi-layered orchestral sound.

In the main body of the festival, the more modestly proportioned concerts offered the most rewards. Ensemble Corrente's rambling programme, ranging from Boulez to Barry, seemed more inclined to enervate than stimulate the listener. Nevertheless, perspectives were helpfully shifted: after their marathon prelude, the late-night electro-acoustic offerings, which can often seem cold and forbidding on first contact, emerged with real impact; sensitised by the activities earlier in the evening, the ears were ready to appreciate what, for once, sounded like a new world of music.

Both of the solo recitals featured in the festival were a tribute to single-minded virtuosity. It would be hard to imagine a left arm more active in the service of contemporary Italian music than that of the viola player Maurizio Barbetti. But brilliant as his playing was, the range of effects in Sciarrino's Ai limiti della notte and the premiere of a work by Nicola Sani were barely broad enough to sustain interest. James Clarke's Isolation, also a premiere, though equally fond of the spectacular glissando, offered more substance in its short span. More modest in scale, Rolf Hind's recital of Sciarrino, Donatoni and others opened up new horizons. His intellectual control and pervasive feeling for the drama in this repertoire never failed to excite, whether externalising the sheer camp of Castiglioni's Sonatina or battling with the demands of Xenakis's Evryali.

Accroche Note's final recital was on the same level. The sense of ensemble between Francoise Kubler (soprano) and Armand Angster (bass clarinet) in Donatoni's Cinis was not only miraculously co-ordinated musically, but choreographically beautiful. Performances such as these make the labels that define the contemporary repertoire redundant. The response of a near- capacity crowd to this last concert showed that total immersion rather than dilution both restored and extended the dialogue between composer and audience. The sheer blandness of so much that is presented as art today may lower expectations on both sides of the audience-composer divide but, as Sonorities has shown, there is still a public, of respectable size and with clear enthusiasm, that is prepared to confront the difficult and demanding in contemporary music.

Difficult and demanding were not terms to be applied to the cavalcade of opera bits that attended the "official" opening of the Waterfront Hall the day after Sonorities ended. The contrast between the two events was delicious.

Opening nights are, of course, designed for self-congratulation rather than exploration but, for all the friendliness of the occasion, the performers at the Waterfront, with the honourable exception of the Welsh tenor Dennis O'Neill, seemed far less engaged with the succession of lollipops on the programme than their colleagues who had spent the weekend dishing out the genuinely new. Jan Smaczny