If it can help Barack Obama win an election, why should composers not benefit too? The idea of raising funds through micro-donations, which was such a success in the 2008 US election campaign, has found a parallel in the arts, where people are being invited to make small contributions to sponsor new music – a 21st-century equivalent of aristocratic patronage.
The most recent example featured in the opening concert of this year’s Spitalfields Winter Festival. Under the auspices of London Music Masters, a music charity that runs a violin award scheme, the “Buy a Bar” campaign raised £8,000 through a Facebook campaign to sponsor a new violin concerto by Martin Suckling.
The evening’s programme started out far from the chill gales of a wintry east London with Claude Vivier’s Pulau Dewata, inspired by the exotic sounds of Bali. The allure of sensuous percussion rhythms here is very close to the Bali-inspired music of Britten’s opera Death in Venice, also dating from the 1970s, though Vivier limited himself to four players, led by the jangling magnetism of xylophone and piano.
From there to Suckling’s new concerto was not a large step. The ideas came and went more quickly in this piece, though: the concerto’s title is De sol y grana, taking a line from a poem by Antonio Machado, which envisages bubbles floating in the air, glimmering and bursting. Suckling’s bubbles are air pockets of music that are briefly effervescent and then evaporate. A lot of it is fast-moving, alive with surface detail and it works because the solo part – Agata Szymczewska was the highly skilled violinist – pins down the character of each idea so deftly.
The concert ended with Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum. This came with a complex note about “repeated arpeggios and their metamorphosis in various transient passages”. What we actually heard was a sort of concerto for seven players, led by a jangly piano tuned a quarter-tone lower, in which the listener is led on a dramatised journey – the central climax being a hugely violent cadenza for the pianist. The result was acerbic but intermittently involving, and the London Contemporary Orchestra under Hugh Brunt made an expert job of it, as far as one could tell.