Chamber Music 2000 at the Purcell Room
On Wednesday night the Purcell Room hosted a concert to mark 10 years of Chamber Music 2000, the scheme started by the Schubert Ensemble to commission and propagate new chamber music for student ensembles. The aim has been to create a body of new music by leading composers which is technically accessible to learner players. The concert featured music by twelve composers played by performers ranging from professional groups (the Schubert Ensemble themselves and the Lawson Trio) to students from the Birmingham Conservatoire and the Royal Academy Junior Department, right down to a group of eight-year-olds from a state school in north London.
As befitted the occasion, most items were world premieres; these included Antonia Bates’s iridescent Twinkling Crystals, winner of a competition for young composers, as well as works from established names like Paul Patterson and David Knotts. The composer who has contributed most to Chamber Music 2000 is Piers Hellawell, and he was represented by four pieces: two for students and two full-scale concert works.
Hellawell’s The Building of Curves, with which the Schubert Ensemble opened the programme, was the musical highlight. Starting from a driving, muscular unison in the strings decorated by an ornate piano line at the extremes of the keyboard, the second movement dissolves into an elusive, haunting, slow melody. The Lawson Trio finished with his challenging and eloquent Etruscan Games, which I would like to hear again but felt like one piece too many on this occasion.
Hide in the attic, also by Piers Hellawell, was the most successful of the pieces for students, played with impressive self-possession by a very young quartet from Garden Suburb Junior School in London. The piece cleverly mixed notated and aleatoric passages without the joins showing, and the young pianist Mina Masuda gave a brilliantly assured performance.
Although there was not a weak piece on display, I did feel at time that everything was a bit too polite: a leaning towards slow and quiet music at the expense of the loud and rhythmical – although Cheryl Frances Hoad’s Pay Close Attention bucked the trend enjoyably. I was surprised more than once to hear the ghost of Fauré echoing through the harmony: he may not be the most fashionable of composers, but is unquestionably one of the giants of the chamber music pantheon.
A perennial problem with chamber music in a school setting is the shortage of violas. The violists at the Purcell Room were all excellent but there are many schools who would not be able to summon one up, immediately ruling out more than half of the pieces on the programme. If I had a single suggestion for CM2000 it would be: more trios, please, or quartets without viola. This is not to disrespect the treasured viola, but to widen the net for the repertoire. [I understand that some pieces can use an extra violin to replace the viola part if necessary.]
So bravo to the Schubert Ensemble for ten years of Chamber Music 2000, and to the Lawson Trio for taking up the baton. Playing (good) new chamber music is a great experience for young players, and writing it is a challenge composers are clearly keen to take up. Here’s to the next ten years.
The scores of all Chamber Music 2000 scores are available from Sound and Music.