BCMG review 21.3.19

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY PREFERS EAST TO WEST

BIRMINGHAM CONTEMPORARY MUSIC GROUP
CBSO Centre ***
With all the tired cliches that have become so predictable in today's contemporary music (percussion instruments stroked with a violin bow, wind instruments blown notelessly, a rattling of their keys, dead-sounding piano thuds)) it was a joy to encounter a totally new sound in this Birmingham Contemporary Music Group concert -- and that was from a Chinese instrument at least 3000 years old.
The Sheng is actually a sonorous mouthorgan, vertically held, its keys grouped all the way around its circumference, and it is capable of the widest range of nuances, from the mightiest weight of a pedal-organ to the most delicate of whispers, and Wu Wei brought all his skills and natural musicality to these two performances featuring this wonderful instrument (actually I own a very basic version, brought from an Oxfam catalogue decades ago).
Commissioned by BCMG from its recent Apprentice Composer-in-Residence Donhgoon Shin, Anecdote is in fact a three-movement mini-concerto for Sheng and ensemble, endearingly autobiogaphical. Sheng and western instruments blearily remember a boozy night out, coalescing in tone and texture, there are lively incidents along the way, and an extended solo cadenza eventually finds the Sheng joined by ritualistic untuned drums, resonant of the composer's Korean homeland.
Wu Wei (surely as great a genius on his Sheng as was Larry Adler on his harmonica) was joined by cellist Ulrich Heinen and percussionist Julian Warburton for The Wind Sounds in the Sky by Chinese composer Jia Guoping. This three-way conversation progressed with a purposeful sense of direction, magical ruminations contrasting with genuine energy until its fading conclusion, and revealing so many of the Sheng's amazing capabilities.
These oriental works were framed by two pieces by the English composer Rebecca Saunders, now firmly embedded in the European fashion for slow-moving, slowly-shifting timbres. Her Crimson -- Molly's Song 1, James Joyce-inspired, conducted here by Julien Leroy, and Murmurs, no conductor, but with collages of tiny groups scattered around the audience, seemed to be saying much of the same thing for a total of nearly an hour, a rare example of rhythmic life coming from the cross-stringing of violinist Philip Brett, making us yearn for Scheherazade, and a return to the East.
Christopher Morley

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