Friday 17 March 2023

A real celebration of a maverick talent: Snakebite! Stephen Montague at 80, at St John's Smith Square

Stephen Montague celebrating his birthday on 10 March 1944 with his mother in Baldwinsville, NY (Photo courtesy of Stephen Montague)
Stephen Montague celebrating his birthday on 10 March 1944 with his mother in Baldwinsville, NY (Photo courtesy of Stephen Montague)

Snakebite: Stephen Montague at 80
 - Stephen Montague: Introit St John's, Snakebite!, Beyond the Stone Horizon, Dark Sun - August 1945; Southbank Sinfonia, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, the Centre for Young Musicians, Lambeth Music Service, Contemporary Music for All,  Kentish Town Cantores, Augustina Kapoti, Rob Smith, Richard Heason, Stephen Montague, Xenia Pestova Bennett; St John's Smith Square

With music spanning nearly 30 years and 140 performers mixing young professionals, students, amateurs and children, this was a real celebration of Stephen Montague's maverick talent and engaging sense of music making

Southbank Sinfonia's celebratory concert, Snakebite: Stephen Montague at 80 at St John's Smith Square on Thursday 16 March 2023, brought together a remarkable number of performers, the orchestra itself, students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, the Centre for Young Musicians and Lambeth Music Service, performers from Contemporary Music for All and Kentish Town Cantores, along with four conductors, Augustina Kapoti, Rob Smith, Richard Heason and Stephen Montague, as well as Xenia Pestova Bennett (toy piano).  All in all, some 140 performers, professional, students and amateur, children and adults, came together for the major work in the second half, Montague's 1995 threnody for Hiroshima, Dark Sun - August 1945, but the evening presented us with a dazzling array of styles and musical approaches. I interviewed Stephen some weeks before the concert [see my interview], and indeed my article was reproduced in the programme [PDF]

We began with a joke, Stephen as compere struggling with a recalcitrant microphone and feedback, developing into electronics from Kornelia Nemcova. The first main piece was a premiere, Introit St John's, a work for symphonic brass and percussion where Augustina Kapoti conducted Southbank Sinfonia brass (including guest musicians and alumni), Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance percussion, CoMa and Kentish Town Cantores. The piece is Stephen's reworking of an early brass quintet into a far larger and more complex piece. It began as a simple brass fanfare, full of ceremonial noise and drama but it gradually unwound, 'wrong' notes appeared, perhaps a subtitle for it might be 'the fanfare that goes wrong'! Despite this deliberate subverting, there was something quasi-Berlioz about the piece, and at the end, we had a wave of percussion from the balcony. 

Snakebite! was written in 1995 for the Orchestra of St John's and intended to tour with a Haydn symphony, so it uses a Haydn-sized chamber orchestra, but the material is very different and inspired by Montague's time teaching in Texas. Rather appropriately, Southbank Sinfonia was conducted by Rob Smith, Professor of Music Composition and director of the AURA Contemporary Ensemble at the University of Houston Moores School of Music. The piece takes the fiddle tune Dusty Miller and re-invents it, mixing in the idea of a snakebite, and the poison (an alien tune in a different key) attacking and working its way through the body.

The result is a piece which is a terrific evocation of Country fiddling with real bite and vivid drama, including the first of a number of moments during the evening when Stephen's music played with heterophony as well as what might be called organised chaos. But there was other drama here, as the 'poison' slowed everything down, yet at the end, the original material reasserted itself, Dusty Miller survived. All in all a terrific piece.

The first half concluded with the premiere of Beyond the Stone Horizon, where Richard Heason conducted Southbank Sinfonia. This was based on an earlier piece from 2006 that Stephen withdrew and later re-wrote, expanding it both in terms of length and number of performers. At its heart, it is a chaconne, based on the chaconne from Brahms' Symphony No. 4 which in turn is based on Bach. But instead of giving us a set of variations over a set bass line or harmonic sequence, Stephen subjects the chord sequence itself to variation, and it is only part of the way through the work that nebulous suggestion developed into a coherent presentation of the material. 

It began with little flashes of musical material against a background (including, at first, the audience humming), eventually creating a sort of vibrant stasis that slowly coalesced into a recognisable image of the Brahms/Bach chaconne. But this quickly disappeared to be replaced by a sequence of fascinating textures and rhythms, and a sense of chaconne/not chaconne tempting us throughout. The final climax, where the whole orchestra was really wound up, released an enormous bout of energy.

After the interval, the music played continuously. At the centre was Dark Sun conducted by Stephen Montague, but before and after it, blending seamlessly, was Xenia Pestova Bennett on toy piano. We began with Almost a lullaby for toy piano, wind chimes and music box, delicate, strange and exotic sounds which at times evoked a demented chiming clock. The end of the piece was overlaid by the initial graunching chord of Dark Sun. This piece is for huge orchestra, yet relatively open score, mixing different abilities (children, students, talented amateurs and professionals) with an array of kitchen sink percussion, multiple choruses (in the balcony) and three radios.

It is essentially a huge soundscape, mixing musical material with radio broadcasts from the period as well as bringing in popular music of the time. It began with huge energy and violence, which eventually dissolved into an eerie soundscape with radio broadcasts. This interplay of violent organised chaos and eerie soundscapes with radios was an important feature of the work, but gradually a highly rhythmic throbbing took over, and rhythmic waves overwhelmed the whole ensemble, leading to a final eerie soundscape that died away to a hiss and a final bass drum.

The work was written for CoMA in 1995 and Stephen admits that at the time he did not anticipate further performances, but though written for large forces, the way it is written (relatively open score, with flexibility for mixed-ability performers) has meant that there have been other performances. One of the joys of this performance was the way that you could see young teenage performers sitting amongst the adults, concentrating furiously, making their own contributions.

As the piece died away, Xenia Pestova Bennett took over on toy piano with Mirabella - a tarantella for toy piano where she really gave the little instrument some wellie.

This wasn't the end, however. Southbank Sinfonia oboist Luiz De Campos came forward to play 'Happy Birthday' on his oboe. However, this went wrong and De Campos resorted to beat-boxing in a stunning display of virtuosity. And a final, heterophonic rendition of 'Happy Birthday' brought things to a delightful conclusion.

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • A wonderful sense of poetry: Timothy Ridout in Lionel Tertis' viola transcription of Elgar's Cello Concerto - record review
  • This is my body: Figure's imaginative rethinking of Buxtehude's intense sung devotion, Membra Jesu Nostri - concert review
  • Imaginative programming, unusual location, exceptional music-making: Nonclassical's The Greenhouse Effect at the Barbican Conservatory - concert review
  • More than just a rarity: Tchaikovsky's first surviving opera, Oprichnik, gets a vibrant performance from Chelsea Opera Group - opera review
  • Late-Romantic atmosphere & emotional turmoil: Ethel Smyth's Der Wald gets a rare outing - opera review
  • Snakebite! composer Stephen Montague at 80 interview
  • Sending everyone away with a smile: Academy of Ancient Music in Purcell and Locke - concert review
  • Shifting harmonies & tonal instability: Kitty Whately & Joseph Middleton are sympathetic & communicative in their programme of late-Romantic lieder on Befreit: A Soul Surrendered - record review
  • Once you hear it, I guarantee you'll be seduced: Arne Nordheim's The Tempest, Suite from the Ballet in a new recording from Bergen - record review
  • A journey through sound: looking up | looking out from a cellar full of noise - a trumpet, a tuba & live electronics create a bit of magic - record review
  • An enjoyable romp: Rossini's 1825 coronation opera Il viaggio a Reims from English Touring Opera - opera review
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