SoundState, the Southbank Centre’s five-day celebration of contemporary composers, is the closest London comes to a new music festival. Stylistically, its program is church wide, and this was reflected in the opening concert, which was given by the London Philharmonic, conducted by Edward Gardner. All four works were heard for the first time in Britain, although only one of them can truly be called new.
It was Rebecca Saunders To An Utterance, the piano concerto she composed in 2020 for Nicholas Hodges, who played it here too. Saunders gives the soloist just a few bars of rest across the entire 28-minute score, as he is taken on a fascinating musical journey. She describes the piano part as an “incessant and compulsive soliloquy”; it’s a deluge of glissandos and clusters played with the palms and forearms but which, despite its insistence, is doomed to failure, because the orchestra (which includes an accordion, a second piano and an array of exotic percussion) only adds feedback rather than support.
Saunders’ concerto, which Hodges played with fierce concentration and sometimes astonishing virtuosity, was by far the most impressive work of the concert, though this did not reflect the dedication and application that Gardner and his orchestra devoted to whatever they were playing. At Missy Mazzoli’s 2013’s River Rouge Transfiguration, inspired by old Detroit photographs, unfolds an inconsequential series of threadlike melodic lines and twisting chorales to John Adams-esque pulsations. And Adams also seemed to model much of the orchestral writing in Mason Bates‘Four-movement symphonic Liquid Interface for orchestra and electronics from 2007, in which the pre-recorded soundtrack only occasionally interacts meaningfully with the live instruments, and sounds mostly cosmetic.
The concert ended with George Walker’s Sinfonia No 5, Visions, written in 2016, just two years before the composer died at the age of 96. It was composed in response to the white supremacist shooting of black worshipers at a Southern church. Caroline the previous year; the anger in the tangled instrumental lines is palpable, but the stupendous gestures never resolve, so the whole piece feels like an extended introduction to an argument that never quite gets going.
sound status continues at the Southbank Centre, London, until April 3.