Nottingham Chamber Music Festival 2022
Various venues in Nottingham city centre
July 10 – 17 2022
Review: William Ruff
Nottingham’s chamber music festival is back at full strength and buzzing with new ideas
Ask a dozen audience members for their personal highlight of this year’s Nottingham Chamber Music Festival and you’d get (at least) a dozen answers. And if you think a typical audience member is grey-haired and likes only Mozart and Beethoven, then think again. The NCMF pulled in just about the widest age range imaginable: everyone from 2 to 90. Families, teenagers, music professionals, seasoned concert-goers, newcomers: all were catered for.
For me the musical and spiritual heart of the whole week was the Friday event, Together in Isolation, staged at Nottingham Contemporary and performed by violinist Tamaki Higashi and violist Carmen Flores. Now you could be forgiven for thinking that an evening of duets for violin and viola could be less than exciting, but it turned out to be riveting from beginning to end. The programme mainly alternated intricate Bach and Bartók in superb performances by two musicians who are clearly as good at telepathy as they are at playing. More than this, the evening was a musical meditation on the effects of Covid on the lives of musicians, suddenly isolated from colleagues, audiences and an essential part of themselves.
There were three parts: ‘Together’ (i.e. pre-Covid normality), ‘Apart’ (the pain of the various lockdowns) and ‘Reborn’ (back to a new normality…whatever that comes to mean). Spliced amongst the live performances were extracts from BBC News bulletins as well as recordings of frustrating initial attempts at Zoom rehearsals, eventually leading to a mastery of the technology and to some pretty accomplished online playing. The effect of the concert was both moving and eye-opening. And it culminated in a thrilling new work by Oxford professor Martyn Harry, a series of musical meditations on adversity leading to a triumphant ending with the opening up of of new horizons.
The imaginative, innovative nature of this event was mirrored elsewhere over the week. Again at Nottingham Contemporary the Tailleferre Wind Ensemble played in a gallery whose central installation of playground slides (with toddlers eager to use them) certainly created an unusual context for the music as they introduced their wide-ranging, ever-changing audience to 13 composers, mostly unfamiliar and mostly female. The Ensemble produced some lovely sounds, whether soothingly lyrical or vibrantly energetic. The sight and sound of Gordon Jacob’s Partita for Solo Bassoon being played atop a mountain of children’s play equipment and witnessed by wide-eyed two-year-olds is not the sort of thing I shall easily forget.
A very different audience of young people filled St Peter’s Church in the city centre on Saturday afternoon – and a very special audience they turned out to be, many of them young composers involved in a collaboration with the Villiers Quartet called #VQCreate. There were 20 pieces on the programme, most very short but all full of imagination and each with its own distinctive voice. Just glancing at the titles (Vibrance, Unworthy, Embrace, Cadets, Gentleman’s Wager – to name just a random few) gives some idea of the emotional range and approaches to the challenge. All the young composers stood for well-deserved applause at the end of each utterly committed performance by the Villiers Quartet.
There were more traditional concerts in the week’s mix too. At the Squire Performing Arts Centre the Barbican Quartet started their programme with Mozart’s String Quartet K.575. It was the sort of performance where you only have to hear the opening bars to know that something special is about to unfold. Everything was right: tempo, phrasing, colouring, the fact that all four players played as one. There was some lovely Brahms as well – but it was perhaps the least familiar piece, the 1st Quartet by György Ligeti, which made the biggest impression, despite its many difficulties both for the players and the audience. So much of it was very strange: bowing on the fingerboard, brutal rhythms, bizarre chromatic scales and fragmented waltz melodies in a whirlpool of clashing sounds. But the total effect was as exhilarating as it was challenging – and a compelling argument for the power of live music-making.
The Festival came to its conclusion on Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s in the Lace Market when the Villiers Quartet played a programme of Haydn, Britten and Beethoven, together with the live concert premiere of Philip Herbert’s Solicitudo. This last work is another example of how artists can fashion inspirational works out of hardship. In this case a musical journey unfolds from a tranquil, certain world to one dominated by the many anxieties caused by a global pandemic. The music becomes fragmentary; there are ominous silences; what was calm and lyrical becomes sharply dissonant. The effect was mesmerising – and deeply moving. The Beethoven which ended the concert – and the Festival – was typical of the Villiers’ mastery of core repertoire and the eloquent way they communicate challenging repertoire. They brought the mix of the frenetic and the still brilliantly to life, always completely inside the music.
Once again the Nottingham Chamber Music Festival has broken new ground, won new audiences and opened ears to new works. I predict that we’ll be saying much the same next year – so don’t book next year’s summer holiday before you know what Festival Director Carmen Flores and her team have in store.
Nottingham Chamber Music Festival, director Carmen Flores
Villiers String Quartet
Barbican String Quartet
Tamaki Higashi (violin) and Carmen Flores (viola)