Southbank Centre – New Music Biennial

Londoners don’t realise how lucky they are to have so much investing stuff on their doorsteps. From world-class museums and sporting venues, to so much subsidised music and art. This weekend was a perfect example. A weekend of free music at the Southbank Centre taking place in the Purcell Room and the main stage and foyer of Queen Elizabeth Hall. I had a gig arranged at Rough Trade on the Saturday so only saw a few pieces, but across the two days I managed to catch some really interesting music.

The New Music Biennial has apparently been running for a decade and this year’s event was a mixture of greatest hits and new commissions. The thing that sets the festival apart from other events is the format. Commissions are about 15 minutes long and are followed by a Q&A with the artists explaining their thoughts when composing the piece. The piece is then repeated so you can then hear it a fresh light.

As somebody who struggles to understand the complex imagery composers attempt to create with an orchestra, enjoying the music rather than ‘understanding it’. To hear what the composer intended offered me an opportunity to listen with a bit more of an instruction guide.

The first piece illustrated this perfectly. Urban Birds by Arlene Sierra featured three pianos arranged in a t-shape played by the pianists Xenia Pestova-Bennett, Sarah Nicolls and Eliza McCarthy who were accompanied by field recordings of various birds. My interpretation of what was happening in the music was completely wrong. Listening back after the explanation, I could hear what the composer was trying to achieve, giving me a completely fresh view of a piece I had only listened to 20 minutes earlier.

Xenia Pestova Bennett, Sarah Nicolls and Eliza McCarthy

Next up was my highlight of the weekend, Gazelle Twin, who with composer Max de Wardener reworked ‘The Power and Glory’ from her album Pastoral, for a concert orchestra. Today accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, we saw two powerful performances of the piece. Gazelle Twin isn’t somebody I have really got into. Her music is too electronic for me. But with a concert orchestra providing extra dynamics and Elizabeth’s beautiful voice. The piece was stunning.

Gazelle Twin

The rest of the weekend was filled with little gems. Anna Meredith’s work for the human body – where the orchestra used their body as percussion and basically danced the piece was an unusual highlight. There were brass bands, electronic artists using tape, choirs and sea shanties. There was something for everyone and all free. Londoners are really spoiled.