London Contemporary Orchestra at the Reverb Festival
Helen Wallace takes a trip to Camden's Roundhouse for an evening of contemporary music
The Reverb festival has an ideal venue in Camden’s Roundhouse: its spectacular main space, once an engine shed, now luridly but darkly lit in blue and scarlet, is effortlessly atmospheric. On Saturday night the place was bursting with the under-30s: the London Contemporary Orchestra must be doing something right, since these were not familiar faces from the contemporary classical scene. Clearly, breaking up the evening with DJ sets in bar and foyer areas, standing tickets and fluid movement around the building created the right ambience for this crowd.
The musical ambition is high: one foyer performance was Kaaija Saariaho’s Lonh for soprano and electronics, given a committed performance by Sarah Dacey. Call me old-fashioned, but acoustically it would have benefited from being heard in the main space. Still, people were hearing a rarely performed work of substance – that’s got to be good. And the same can be said for the main programme: it wasn’t all top drawer, but the lure of Jonny Greenwood and Gabriel Prokofiev brought a new audience into contact with Xenakis’s monumental Metastasis (1954) and the burnished perfection of Claude Vivier’s Orion (1979).
Gifted young LCO conductor Hugh Brunt directed a vivid performance of Metastasis, Xenakis’s ground-breaking early work, and you could almost see the intense, seething masses of texture towering up out of the orchestra. Its powerful impact is made in just 8 minutes, a fact the two living composers could have pondered on: Gabriel Prokofiev’s substantial Concerto for Bass Drum has no fewer than four movements, and lasts 25 minutes. The charismatic percussionist Joby Burgess, whose energy and precision are always inspiring, was an ideal advocate. Prokofiev has succeeded in creating a piece where the lack of pitch variety is not a glaring problem – certainly an achievement: instead he throws the spotlight on touch, timbre, pressure, volume and articulation, while imaginative scoring (much of it arresting) and melodic interest are confined to the orchestra.
There are dramatic moments and some dynamic rhythmic writing, but though he transcends special effects, memorable it ain’t. However, it seemed positively well-structured in comparison to Jonny Greenwood’s Doghouse. Radiohead’s lead guitarist may have had success with film scores, but this work doesn’t make the leap to stand-alone music. He wallows in string close harmony but there’s something inert at the work’s centre. My neighbour, a leading composer, joked that he’d taken the first 5 minutes of Xenakis’s Jonchaies and stretched into 23. Having re-listened to that, I can see his point.
We were treated to Stockhausen’s curious Schoenbergian Elektronische Musik, sounding as quaint and nostalgic as a track from the BBC Radiophonics workshop, before a mesmerising performance of Vivier’s Orion, a wonderfully crafted meditation, drenched in Stravinskian harmony, but breathing its own, otherworldly air.
The London Contemporary Orchestra is big and brave, but big means expensive: I hope Brunt and his band have the support they deserve.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine