March 20, 2012 5:11 pm

Britten Sinfonia, Barbican, London

Two new concertos from Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett

A new generation of composers in North America is pushing its way onward and upward. As the old guard of minimalists have been celebrating some significant birthdays – Steve Reich was 75 last October, Philip Glass 75 in January, John Adams 65 last month – the age of post-minimalism is upon us.

At this concert the Britten Sinfonia, itself a sea of young faces, brought together two of the most visible of the new wave of composers, who aim to wash away the distinctions between classical, rock, folk and pop: Nico Muhly, already known to London audiences as the composer of the opera Two Boys, and Owen Pallett, probably best known as recording artist Final Fantasy.

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It was a concert of two halves. The first, featuring premieres of new concertos by each of the two composers, was a straightforward classical concert. There was an introductory orchestral piece by Missy Mazzoli, entitled Violent, Violent Sea (though its slow, heaving waters sounded anything but violent). Then came Pallett’s Violin Concerto, played by Pekka Kuusisto, and with it an unexpectedly intricate display of classical composition techniques. Pallett toys with fugues, quarter tones and complex management of his ideas, and has produced a concerto that is clean in sound, but intriguing to the intellect – an experimental step forwards, but one with potential.

After that, Muhly’s Cello Concerto felt less adventurous. The umbilical cord to minimalism is still unbroken here, with the orchestra serving up a seductively glittering version of Glass’s rhythmic patterns, leaving Oliver Coates, the cello soloist, without much to say. The solo part never drives the argument and it was often difficult to hear the cello under the orchestra.

Then came part two. The lights were turned down, the amplification turned on, and a select group of nine performers, including Muhly and Pallett, offered a set of their songs, some folk and some dog-eared rock (“hippies-gone-wrong” was the description), and a couple of other pieces. They bill themselves as crossover musicians and – with a healthy dose of self-indulgence – they had just crossed over to where their league of young followers probably prefers them. The atmosphere was like the Roundhouse in the 1970s, so perhaps this was a case of back to the future?

3 stars

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