When Nico Muhly opted to curate a weekend-long festival of new music, in his mind was a “riotous party”, as he put it, for friends and family. The result was a love-in, a showcase for those associated with the American composer. The name of Muhly’s mentor, the composer Philip Glass, popped up several times, along with various figures from the New York contemporary music scene. And there was plenty of room for Muhly’s works too.
He called the festival “A Scream and an Outrage”. But the opening concert, at the Barbican on Friday, was neither. The focus was the European premiere of Paola Prestini’s Oceanic Verses. First performed in Washington DC in 2012, this folk opera with film projection – now newly orchestrated – results from weighty ambitions.
On paper it is described as a narrative about “fading civilisations”. But on stage, it doesn’t engage. The story unfolds on the Mediterranean coast, where an archaeologist (Helga Davis) searches for relics of the past. It soon dissolves into an incoherent meditation on the changing face of Italy and the impact of immigration. Subsidiary characters – a sailor (Claudio Prima), a peasant (Hila Plitmann) and a soldier (Chris Burchett) – are poorly defined. The text is unoperatic. And the film projection renders the imagination redundant, either doubling the on-stage action or profiling pretty landscapes.
At least the music sustains the attention: it’s a collage of folk tunes worked into a score. But while Plitmann, Burchett, Prima and particularly Davis sang with conviction, they struggled to be heard above the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra, galvanised by conductor Jayce Ogren.
Two world premieres passed without much ado. Muhly’s choral work An Outrage was anything but outrageous. Not that it was dull. No, more soothing. Muhly’s magpie-like streak manifested itself in echoes of Tallis, Britten, Steve Reich, all underpinned by a constant drone. The BBC Singers’ performance was as inoffensive as the music.
David Lang’s new percussion concerto man made sells itself on its instrumentation. Yes, there are twigs and wine bottles, but the whole is so clunky and stop-and-start that anything resembling novelty value soon wears off. The ensemble So Percussion gave it strong advocacy, but failed to hammer it into the memory.