mon 20/09/2021

Psappha, Phillips, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester online review - Turnage world premiere | reviews, news & interviews

Psappha, Phillips, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester online review - Turnage world premiere

Psappha, Phillips, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester online review - Turnage world premiere

New music specialists mark 30 years of enterprise and dedication

Voice personality: Ian Shaw performs with Psappha in the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's 'Black Milk' Chris Payne

Manchester’s Psappha have been proudly flying the flag of new and radical music right through the year of lockdown, and last night’s livestream, with two-and-a-half world premieres, one of them by Mark

-Anthony Turnage, showed they haven’t given up making waves.

Engaging many of Manchester’s most distinguished solo musicians – and performing in ensembles whose numbers would daunt many another music-making organization right now – their enterprise and dedication are breathtaking. This live-streamed event brought together, as scene-setter Tom McKinney put it, “21 musicians, safely distanced’ at Hallé St Peter’s, the church-turned-music-centre in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Psappha is 30 years old this year, and the concert exemplified their long tradition of encouraging the up-and-coming, challenging the established (Turnage became their patron in succession to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in 2018), and spotlighting the extraordinary. The Turnage premiere, Black Milk, was commissioned by them and would have come to birth around a year ago, but for Covid. The composer was there to introduce and hear it, along with Gavin Higgins, whose Dance Suite brought the evening to an exhilarating close.

Conductor Jamie PhillipsFirst things first. Psappha have long run a programme to bring composers and solo performers together one-to-one, and its products include wood.pulse, in which Matthew Grouse explores the possibilities of the solo bassoon. Ben Hudson gave the world premiere of something which I’d say properly deserves the epithet of "experimental", as it turns out to be something of a one-note polka, giving him rhythmic, percussive, intervallic and micro-tonal effects all relating to the pitch of A. The rhythms help to power it along, and I suspect there’s a bit of jokiness involved in the raspberries near the beginning and the quasi-didgeridoo effects near the end.

Conductor Jamie Phillips (pictured above right) directed an eight-person ensemble in Varèse’s Octandre – truly an extraordinary item from the past, as it’s almost 100 years old now. Virtuosity on the part of every player was there in abundance, and the piece took on its organic shape unflinchingly and, by the end, the qualities of “animé et jubilatoire” required.

The new Turnage piece sets the poem Todesfuge by Paul Celan (although it’s in English translation) for jazz vocalist and 16-person ensemble, and featured Ian Shaw as singer. It’s his first piece for jazz singer, and Turnage says Shaw’s voice personality is important to him and right for this piece. You can hear what he means: the poem itself has a haunting quality, dealing with the horrifying experiences of those who endured Second World War labour and death camps under Nazi Germany – any voice that tells that tale must encapsulate the nature of suffering and horror.

Textures are spare and stark (except for a massive, funereal chorale/march which comes near the end and forms the effective climax, though it’s not the last word); the solo is often a lament. There’s a kind of thematic name-check for the idea of “dance” in the text, and the statement that “Death is a master from Germany” brings just an appalled low bass pedal note, before the climax.

Exponents of the original poem describe it as verbal “counterpoint”: some phrases are much repeated and re-intertwined as it progresses. That’s how it seems on the printed page: in a musical setting it’s simply the repetition that come across, and Turnage (sensibly) doesn’t try to mirror its structure in musical terms. But it’s an intensely moving creation, though not a pretty one.

Januaries, by Lisa Illean, was written in 2017, though revised in 2020, which is why I think it counts as a half-world-premiere. She says it’s about “sensations that elude the eye” – namely those of her grandparents’ Queensland home in its summer months. It’s hot and damp there, then, and you can almost hear the insects buzzing. The music is slow-evolving, sustained and drowsy, though there are skilful overlays of texture and tempo to prevent what is undoubtedly mesmerising drifting into slumber inducement.

Another piece emerging from Psappha’s “Composing for …” programme was Glass Cathedrals, by Grace-Evangeline Mason, written for harpist Lauren Scott and played by her on this occasion. You’ll hear it said on the film that it’s having its first performance, but a glance at YouTube’s “Related” suggestions on your screen will show that it already exists in Psappha’s video library, recorded by Lauren Scott a year ago. It’s well worth the second unveiling: it’s tonal, sensuous, and sounds glorious, conveying the idea of “fleeting, temporary splendour” – just like it says on the tin.

Gavin Higgins introduces his own Dance Suite as a homage to American dance styles, and to Bernstein, in a way. You can hear that from the first bar, and it hardly lets up for the whole of its exhilarating length. It’s fast and furious (Psappha’s founder and artistic director, Tim Williams, gets a virtuosic role on percussion), and a lot of fun.

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