Total Immersion: Thea Musgrave, Barbican, London – review

Even a Total Immersion event can have some blind spots. Last Saturday’s, which was devoted to Thea Musgrave, contained no opera – a core component of the Scottish-born composer’s output. Nevertheless, there was plenty on offer to profile her keen instinct for the theatrical, as well as her ability to convey picture in sound.

In an afternoon talk, Musgrave likened instrumentalists to actors, and the comparison hovered over the ensuing choral concert. Rorate Coeli, in particular, throbbed with dramatic gestures, including sounds of chatter, growls and wails, tightly contained in an 11-minute package.

Not everything was so memorable, however, in spite of the BBC Singers’ committed advocacy. Ithaca and Midnight were as smooth and soothing as cocoa. But the final offering – settings of famous poems glimpsed on the London Underground – was more intriguing: as the piece draws to a close, a solo soprano turns and, mid-song, exits the stage, revealing Musgrave’s tendency to exploit the visual in the name of drama.

More of this followed in the Barbican’s evening concert, the highlight of which was the Horn Concerto, one of Musgrave’s “abstract dramatic” pieces. Innovative for its time in 1970-71, this work explores spatial ideas by giving instrumentalists a theatrical role: solo horn players are dotted round the auditorium, responding to each other like characters in a play. It is dynamic music with a visceral edge – not least in this performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and main horn soloist Martin Owen.

The next piece, however, contained more to admire than to love. Written in 2008, Green showcases Musgrave’s sense of craftsmanship, her ability to build taut structures on compact ideas – in this case, the friction between two harmonic areas. But the result appeals to the mind rather than the gut.

The last two works are self-confessedly pictorial. The Seasons was inspired by a visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; Turbulent Landscapes by a collection of Turner paintings. While the programmatic design of these pieces now comes across as old-fashioned, there is plenty in both to tickle the imagination. And, under the guidance of conductor Martyn Brabbins, the players put theirs to subtle effect, creating an interpretation full of shimmering colour.

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