Igor Toronyi-Lalic

A lockdown masterpiece and the Jessica Rabbit of concertos: contemporary classical roundup

The big beasts fluff it but there's plenty to thrill on the fringes and in Berlin, including Rebecca Saunders' electrifying new piano concerto

Nicolas Hodges performing Rebecca Saunders's new piano concerto 'to an utterance' at the Philharmonie, Berlin, with the Lucerne Festival Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Enno Poppe. Image: Adam Janisch / Musikfest Berlin

So it finally happened: I experienced my first vocal setting of the word ‘Covid’. An encounter that was, inevitably, more harrowing than when I caught the virus itself. ‘Coviiiiiiid!’ yowled the singer, while the orchestra emitted a boom, crack, snap, rumble rumble, shriek, bang, dissonance dissonance. Rice Crispies fans, eat your heart out.

It was part of Exiles, a 30-minute new commission by Julian Anderson for the opening concert of the LSO season. And though this work for soprano, chorus and orchestra did have its touching moments, and attractively translucent and lustrous moments, all terrifically anal and French (music that held out its pinkie), it had the great misfortune to sit right next to a knockout bit of word setting, Natural History (1998) by Judith Weir, so economical and direct.

On the whole the big beasts fluffed it. If you were waiting for a lockdown masterpiece, forget it. Thomas Adès raided all the juicy bits of his opera Exterminating Angel and still couldn’t stitch together a symphony of substance for the CBSO at the Proms.

For aesthetic sustenance you had to avoid the fat middle and head to the skint fringes, where the Overton window of aesthetics is flung wide open. To Cafe Oto, for example, where you could see a blistering filmed performance of Poulomi Desai taking an axe to her sitar, delicately shaving glistening shards of sound off the strings, or a song about the Bezos space trip — ‘That’s a lot of money at the top of a rocket/ I hope they make it there safe’ — from Jennifer Walshe that made me laugh-cry.

Thank god, too, for the concert series Music We’d Like To Hear, a modest but consistently revelatory annual programme of new or newish music. MWLTH has resided for nearly a decade in a small Wren church, St Mary at Hill, a calm, perfect little cube tucked beneath the cresting Walkie Talkie.

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