Review: Classical: What? No Stockhausen?

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The Independent Culture
FOR THE first time in its history, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has dispensed with what its director, Richard Steinitz, calls the "elder statesmen of new music": the Stockhausens and Carters of this world. While in certain respects risky, this development has been accompanied by what seems a greater than usual plethora of events designed to draw in a wider audience, including more repertoire of a broadly "popular" nature than before.

The Bang On A Can All-Stars, distortingly miked to the hilt, filled the Town Hall for their arrangements of several sections from Brian Eno's Music for Airports: ambient music plonked down in a concert format where it simply sounds boring, even when accompanied by the mildly diverting distractions of Frank Scheffer's out-of-focus video projections. Eno - now practically an "elder statesman" himself - was coaxed out of his near-reclusive state to talk thought-provokingly; it was a pity that no wider selection of his work could be mounted.

The late-night concert given by Royal Northern College of Music students included the second performance of Steve Martland's brass-band piece Dividing the Lines. Written in 1986, but only premiered (in a revised version) a few days ago in Manchester, the 20-minute score offers pungent, well- shaped, substantial music of the kind this composer produces all too rarely these days.

An invigorating programme of Chinese compositions - expertly performed by the Nieuw Ensemble conducted by Ed Spanjaard - usefully extended our knowledge of this country's music beyond the now ubiquitous Tan Dun. I especially enjoyed Guo Wenjing's Drama, a captivating tour de force which does more things with three pairs of Chinese cymbals than you'd ever think possible.

Last year, the composer Margaret Lucy Wilkins boycotted all events which did not include music by women in protest at what she considered their inadequate representation. Whatever the relationship between this act and the presence of more female composers in the 1999 festival, the weekend saw one concert, given by Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, in which almost all the works were by women.

The most impressive composition in this programme was by the 32-year- old Rebecca Saunders: British-born but now living in Berlin and better known abroad. Crimson - Molly's Song 1 (after Joyce's Ulysses) slowly assembles some ingenious textures for a fairly straightforward, but unconventionally positioned 12-piece ensemble, disrupting its exploration of instrumental "sound objects" with surprising interventions from whistles and, near the end of its four-movement, 25-minute span, musical boxes. It's too early to say whether Saunders is the significant figure her promotion suggests, but she certainly has an individuality that is compelling. A further review from Huddersfield follows next week.

To Sun 28 Nov (01484 430528)