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BCMG, Heinen, Brindleyplace Birmingham review - from the concrete canyons to the stars | reviews, news & interviews

BCMG, Heinen, Brindleyplace Birmingham review - from the concrete canyons to the stars

BCMG, Heinen, Brindleyplace Birmingham review - from the concrete canyons to the stars

Solo Stockhausen achieves lift off, as live music returns to the Second City

Ulrich Heinen plays Stockhausen at BrindleyplaceBCMG

Birmingham emerged from musical lockdown with Stockhausen. It couldn’t have been anyone else, really.

Birmingham emerged from musical lockdown with Stockhausen. It couldn’t have been anyone else, really. There’s something about Stockhausen’s fusion of modernity and goofy intergalactic romanticism that clearly strikes a chord in the Second City, where the last three decades of music have been measured out in landmark Stockhausen performances: Rattle’s CBSO performances of Gruppen, Birmingham Opera Company’s astonishing 2012 world premiere of Mittwoch aus Licht, and, in 1992, a massive open-air performance of Sternklang in Cannon Hill Park, under the direction of Stockhausen himself.

In fact, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is about to travel to Hanover to participate in another rare performance of Sternklang. This was a sort of prelude to that adventure, planned in collaboration with the Ikon Gallery, and although it involved only one performer, it’s not really possible to describe anything by Stockhausen as small scale. The twelve brief, zodiac inspired melodies of Tierkreis are a lesson in how a single line of music can unlock an entire imaginative cosmology. Performed during rush hour in the central square of Brindleyplace by BCMG’s co-founder, the cellist Ulrich Heinen, they had to contend with the ambient noise of a whole conurbation – yet still managed to make their creator’s outsize personality felt.

It was one of those ideas that was just crazy enough to work. Brindleyplace is Birmingham’s not-particularly-subtle answer to Canary Wharf; a swagger of kitsch 1990s office blocks and chain restaurants plonked around landscaped squares and (currently inactive) fountains. Heinen had set up opposite a shuttered Costa Coffee in the largest square, his cello case propped next to a recycling bin. This open air performance, predicted BCMG’s artistic director in the free programme sheets, "links us back to nature and as Stockhausen puts it, the individual with the cosmic whole, 'preparing us for beings from other stars and their arrival’”.

He wasn’t joking about nature. A flock of seagulls had just hit town, announcing their arrival so enthusiastically that you’d have assumed that a trawlerload of herring had just been landed at Gas Street Basin. Cycle couriers and commuters on Bromptons freewheeled across the performance space, and a police car idled nearby, presumably to deal with unauthorised interplanetary visitors. None of this seemed to fluster Heinen, though even with his cello discreetly amplified, the shimmering textures of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Four Short Studies of 1970 – originally commissioned by Heinen’s teacher Siegfried Palm – simply dissolved amid the ambient noise.Spectators for Heinen's StockhausenHenze’s Serenade fared better. There was something about Henze’s fundamental lyricism – the Italianate warmth that underlies its overcast melodies and quizzical gestures – that somehow managed to cut through, especially when carried by Heinen’s mellow but intensely centred tone. He spent great sprays of pizzicato arcing over the empty fountains; droplets of melody ricocheted off the concrete and brick of the surrounding office blocks, and hung in the air along with the car horns and generators.

And then Stockhausen’s cosmic wheel began to spin. The composer supplies only a title and a single line of melody for each sign of the zodiac, though he does suggest that performers play each one at least three or four times before moving on. Heinen followed these instructions diligently, but although he insisted to me after the performance that he’d only added some minor touches of instrumental colour, he inflected each sequence so vividly that they barely seemed like repetitions – more an evolving, almost improvisatory, fantasy on Stockhausen’s pungently-characterised musical symbols.

The lyricism that had carried Henze’s ideas through the urban clamour was redoubled here – and as Heinen moved from Leo (because it’s August) through the chaste melodic gestures of Virgo, the flashing snap-pizzicati of Scorpio and the deep, booming song of Taurus, the imagination took over: with Heinen’s luminous, eloquent cello sound etching musical lines that seemed to glow, multicoloured, against the urban white noise of traffic and passing aircraft. And then he, and Stockhausen, came full circle; the vision faded, and Birmingham dropped softly back into our own universe. The policemen got into their car and drove away.

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