The PRS Foundationâs New Music Biennial isnât quite like any other contemporary-music festival. Instead of a programme of full-length concerts into which premieres are scattered like confetti, its three days of free concerts showcase just 20 works, all brand new or nearly so. Each piece gets a short concert to itself, in which the work is played twice, the performances separated by a short onstage interview with its composer.
The first of these ventures took place in London and Glasgow in 2014. Regardless of what the word âbiennialâ actually means, weâve had to wait three years for the follow-up, perhaps so that it could be launched in Hull, the 2017 UK city of culture, before transferring to Londonâs Southbank Centre a week later. The 20 pieces were rather breathlessly squeezed into the Hull weekend, sometimes with barely enough time between them to get from one venue to the next â which might be the other side of the city. There were no gaps left in the schedule for meals, either: anyone determined to attend absolutely everything in the three days will certainly have lost a few kilos in the process.
Those who did catch the whole thing would certainly have heard music from across the stylistic spectrum, from mainstream chamber and orchestral music, through jazz and folk-tinged pieces to electronica and dance, including some works that referenced Hullâs own history and musical traditions. Ten scores here were specially commissioned, and only a few of the others had had more than the occasional previous performance, and though not everything I heard was equally convincing, and the between-performance interviews were sometimes less than illuminating. But musicals standards here were generally very high, and the best works were sometimes startling.
Seven years old, Anna Meredithâs Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra almost qualified for classic status in the terms of the Biennial, but played with tremendous verve by the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Gerry Cornelius, with Magicka as the solo beatboxer, it made an upbeat start to the weekend. It was also a neat way of demonstrating how boundaries between musical genres donât matter in this context; here Meredith took a musical technique thatâs one of the staples of hip-hop as the basis for what is fundamentally a well-behaved classical concerto, complete with cadenza, and brought it off triumphantly.
Otherwise the mainstream classical strand was more or less defined by two brand-new works involving Mark Simpson. First, he was the astonishingly unflappable soloist in Simon Holtâs Joy Beast, a clarinet concerto inspired by a Cecil Collins lithograph. Full of typically fragile Holt sounds, it breaks through the fourth wall between audience and orchestra (the BBC Philharmonic under Martyn Brabbins) in the final movement for a four-way dialogue between Simpsonâs basset clarinet and a trumpet, bassoon and piccolo stationed around the auditorium. Two days later, Simpson was in his role as a composer for the first performance of After Avedon, written for the Gould Piano Trio â four powerfully expressive movements inspired by an exhibition of Richard Avedonâs photographs, which seem to carry the weight of the piano-trio tradition along with them, too.
Laurence Craneâs Pieces About Art, fabulously cool, contained and superbly sung by the eight unaccompanied voices of Exaudi, is a perfectly understated piece of vocal writing, while at the opposite end of the scale, Hannah Peelâs Journey to Cassiopeia, three movements from a bigger suite for brass band (the imposing Tubular Brass) and synthesisers, depicting the journey to the stars of Peelâs alter ego, 86-year-old Mary Casio, has a kind of symphonic, cinematic grandeur. Mica Leviâs brand new Everlast, though, didnât seem to get beyond the orchestral gestures it was trying on for size, despite some sometimes striking sounds.
Perhaps the 15-minute limit on the length of each piece inhibited some composers from attempting anything too theatrical, but a couple of them did incorporate a visual element, either directly or through video footage. Brian Irvine and Jennifer Walsheâs 13 Vices certainly has energy in abundance, and with Walshe as the motor-mouth soloist, manages references to climate-change denial, Tippi Hedren and alcoholism along the way, even though itâs all too unfocused to be genuinely effective. Philip Venablesâ collaboration with performance artist David Hoyle, however, is astonishingly powerful, with Hoyleâs garishly made-up face delivering a rant about everything from elections and gender to sodomy and revolution, precisely edited to Venablesâ score with its echoes of expressionist music theatre and Weimar cabaret. Scabrous, fierce, and sometimes very funny, itâs a perfect fusion of music and image.