This Friday (20 May) sees Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) collaborate with Via Nova in a concert in the Adrian Boult Hall (ABH). BCMG, which was founded in 1987 and is now of the Europe’s leading contemporary music ensembles, used to be based at the Conservatoire and used the ABH as a rehearsal and performance venue. The ensemble consists of many musicians who teach at Birmingham Conservatoire, and also play with the CBSO. Via Nova is an exciting contemporary choir made up of students and graduates of the Conservatoire and led by the dynamic conductor, Daniel Galbreath. This concert sees BCMG and Via Nova unite to perform music by Charlotte Bray, Betsy Jones, Morton Feldman and Howard Skempton.
Howard, Lecturer in Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire, will have two works performed on Friday, including the BCMG commission, Six Figures, written for Ulrich Heinen, co-founder of BCMG. I asked Uli about the history of the piece and how it feels to have something written for you:
“In 1998 or so, BCMG and CBSO moved into the CBSO-Centre and I adored this new performance space. I decided I wanted to perform all of Bach’s cello suites in there, mixed with contemporary works for cello. I asked Howard if was willing to write me a piece and he did! I knew Howard from our collaboration on ‘Delicate’, a ballet scored for 2 cellos and percussion. Six Figures is very special! I kind of feel responsible for its well-being. It is not particularly daunting to have Howard there, either. He is so understanding and accommodating. I am used to his presence anyway. Last year we did about a dozen performances of Field Notes and he was there for all of them!”
Daniel Galbreath describes the concert as “centred, to a degree, on the work of our own Howard Skempton”. Via Nova will also be performing a work by Howard, called The Flight of Song, which he describes as “elegantly simple, yet powerfully expressive”. Similar to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel which is also on the programme, both pieces exhibit what Daniel says he loves about both composers’ work: “There’s clarity, such thoughtful, intuitive (but un-fussy) precision, that you don’t realise for a while that you’ve been led into what is also a powerfully emotional landscape”.
I asked Daniel about his feelings of working on a piece written by a composer you know:
“It’s always great for the singers – and me – to perform works by composers we know, but it’s especially special to work with Howard. He’s acted as a mentor to me since I first moved to England, actually (I acutely remember a 2-hour long coffee at Starbucks when I first arrived, feeling very anxious and alone, talking mostly about Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich), so having his work as part of what is a tremendous opportunity for Via Nova means a great deal to me. We’re honoured to work with a composer of such standing, but also of such insight.”
One of BCMG’s greatest achievements is its reputation for commissioning and performing new music, and they work closely with the Conservatoire’s own Composition Department. As well as coaching players of the Conservatoire’s Thallein Ensemble, BCMG also run workshops for composition students and regularly read-through works of students, providing invaluable feedback. Uli spoke to me about how the students benefit from this close relationship:
“I think the composition students love the challenge to write for BCMG and seem to be pleased with our performance of their work. We love playing new works and as the standard of composing has become so high in recent years it is a pleasure for us to get to know them and their work!”
Uli also spoke to me about how the ensemble has “grown enormously” since it was founded in 1987. With around 75 works commissioned as part of their ‘Sound Investment’ scheme, the work of BCMG is now considered “world-class”. Uli says that with BCMG, the composer comes first. They have “free range of the instrumentation and other indicators”, and they will endeavour to keep the work within their repertoire, rather than putting the work back on the shelf, never to be heard again.
Via Nova, the brainchild of Daniel Galbreath, who is a Conservatoire PhD candidate, and Ed Denham, a recent graduate, specialises in performing contemporary choral music, and often work with composers on new works and run workshops in writing for the voice – most recently as part of the conservatoire’s Frontiers Festival. Daniel spoke to me about how Via Nova was formed.
“Via Nova was founded several years ago for a several different projects, and gained momentum from there. We’ve been lucky to do some very exciting performances, including the UK premiere of Morton Feldman’s Swallows of Salangan, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. We’ve also worked a great deal with Conservatoire student composers, which I hope to continue doing.”
The two ensembles clearly have similar aims, working closely with composers to perform their work and providing guidance for student composers for example, but differ in their age and experience. Daniel, a graduate from the University of Wyoming, told me that BCMG are “not just great because of the skill of the players or the boldness of their programming, though – their engagement with the wider Birmingham musical community seems, to me, to be a central part of what makes them a relevant and extraordinary organisation.” “This event continues their tradition of engaging with, and supporting, Conservatoire musicians. Via Nova, though not a ‘student choir’, strictly speaking, is comprised of students/emerging professionals, and it’s exactly this sort of opportunity that gives them experience of the profession at the highest possible level.”
The mentoring of BCMG has clearly rubbed off on Via Nova. The choir hope to “continue the kind of collaborations and community engagement that has been so important” to them thus far. They would also like to start recording and there is a big project in the pipeline to mark this year’s Shakespeare celebrations. “Our aspirations are nothing if not ambitious!” says Daniel, which is perhaps the best way to be.
Birmingham has a thriving cultural scene embracing music, dance, art and literature from around the world. Constantly delivering world-class and though-provoking performances and exhibitions by artists, groups and institutions such as Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Ikon gallery, the CBSO, Vanley Burke, Graham Vick (Birmingham Opera Company), The REP Theatre, Laura Mvula and The Custard Factory to name but a few. I asked Uli why BCMG is so important for composers from Birmingham and beyond:
“Composers need a group like ours who commissions and expertly performs their work to a very high standard. This is good for the UK as it is for Birmingham, because flourishing contemporary art is a vital indicator of a ‘healthy’ society.”
Come and hear BCMG and Via Nova in concert on Friday 20 May, 7:30pm in the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire. Tickets available here.