SoundState, the Southbank Centre’s five-day celebration of contemporary composers, is the nearest thing London now has to a new-music festival. Stylistically, its programme is a broad church, and that was reflected in the opening concert, which was given by the London Philharmonic, conducted by Edward Gardner. All four works were being heard for the first time in Britain, though only one of them could really be described as new.
That was Rebecca Saunders’ To An Utterance, the piano concerto she composed in 2020 for Nicolas Hodges, who played it here too. Saunders gives the soloist only a few bars rest in the entire 28-minute score, as they are taken on a compelling musical journey. She describes the piano part as an “incessant, compulsive soliloquy”; it’s a barrage of glissandos and clusters played with palms and forearms but one that, despite its insistence, is condemned to end in failure, as the orchestra (which includes an accordion, a second piano and an array of exotic percussion) only adds commentary rather than support.
Saunders’ concerto, which Hodges played with fierce concentration and sometimes astonishing virtuosity, was by a distance the most impressive work in the concert, though that was no reflection on the involvement and application that Gardner and his orchestra devoted to everything they played. Missy Mazzoli’s 2013 River Rouge Transfiguration, inspired by old photographs of Detroit, inconsequentially unfolds a series of spindly melodic lines and writhing chorales over John Adams-like pulsations. And Adams also appeared to be the model for much of the orchestral writing in Mason Bates’ four-movement symphony Liquid Interface for orchestra and electronica from 2007, in which the pre-recorded sound track only occasionally interacts meaningfully with the live instruments, and seems mostly cosmetic.
The concert ended with George Walker’s Sinfonia No 5, Visions, which was written in 2016, just two years before the composer’s death at the age of 96. It was composed as a reaction to the white suprematist shooting of black worshippers at a church in South Carolina the previous year; the anger in the tangled instrumental lines is palpable, but the portentous gestures never resolve, so that the whole piece seems like an extended introduction to an argument that never quite gets under way.
SoundState continues at the Southbank Centre, London, until 3 April.