sun 24/10/2021

Turnage 50th birthday, CBSO Centre, Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

Turnage 50th birthday, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Turnage 50th birthday, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Essex-boy composer in middle age is master of movement, Stravinsky and jazz

Hard to believe that Mark-Anthony Turnage, the bovver-booted, tank-topped composer of Night Dances and Greek in the 1980s, has reached his half-century. The Essex-boy image is still intact, somewhat mellowed perhaps; the boots have gone, the tank top remains, and the music has lost not one iota of its original brilliance and pizzazz.

All but one of his four works in this birthday concert were from the last decade, but the only traces of middle age were in the better absorption of influences, the freer control of form, slightly more thorough risk assessment in the handling of the instruments. Yet to tell the truth the earliest of the four, the cello concerto Kai, composed when he was 29 as an elegy for Kai Scheffler of the Ensemble Modern, already has astonishing assurance in all these respects. Among other things it instantly reminds us of Turnage’s superb lyrical gift and his skill at integrating melody into the arch of a work’s structure.
This talent comes out startlingly in the much more recent Crying Out Loud, a noisy ensemble piece which may or may not be about lying awake listening to babies howling. The music yaps and bites like so many Jack Russells, but through it flow long lines of cantus firmus, melodies like the drawstrings on an anorak, binding everything together and pulling it forward. Gestures in music are one thing, they seem to insist, coherence is quite another.
Turnage learnt about movement and sound, one feels, from two teachers: Stravinsky and jazz. Perhaps also a third, pop music (which could still, though, learn a thing or two from the others). Kai is dominated by the blues as much as by jazz rhythm. But it was surely Stravinsky who showed Turnage how to compose rhythms that precisely don’t stick to mechanical patterns. And like Stravinsky he learnt how to do it on the small scale as well as the large.
His recent Three for Two, itself a birthday piece, takes minute fragments of the inevitable tune, and works them into a piano quartet so deft and witty that it provoked delighted laughter from the Birmingham audience. But in the altogether darker and grander Dark Crossing the rhythmic freedom takes the music into much broader expanses, without ever losing clarity, that vital sense that movement is not just whizzing around but has to get you somewhere. I like very much Turnage’s remark about this marvellous work: “I began the [three] movements to see what would happen, and where the music would go.” As a jazz man might say, it goes places.
Over everything presided the substantial (in every sense) figure of Oliver Knussen, a shambling, lovable presence
The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group dispatched all these pieces with their habitual commitment and absence of palaver, soloists stepping out of the band and back into it, doing a job of work with unfailing expertise and self-effacement. Ulrich Heinen was immaculate as ever in Kai, playing with exquisite tone and sombre intensity (his recording, with these players under Simon Rattle, is a must). Alexandra Wood was the sparkling violin soloist in a new work, Caught in Treetops, by the youthful Charlotte Bray, an ex-pupil of Turnage’s and last year’s Apprentice-in-Residence with BCMG: a nice contrast with her teacher’s music, though, intricate and self-absorbed, sonorities like birdsong in the upper branches, seldom coming to the ground but finely heard and very cleverly scored for a dozen instruments.
Over everything presided the substantial (in every sense) figure of Oliver Knussen, a shambling, lovable presence who, nevertheless, once he gets a baton in his hand, is the complete master of precision, discipline and musical perception. Every one of these performances was a gem, painstakingly crafted but delivered with confident energy. If only one could have taken them all home…

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters