The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which this year runs from 15 – 24 November, is certainly one of the region's premier arts events and has a national and international reputation out of all proportion to the relatively modest-sized Pennine town that houses it.
Now 36 years old, the festival has presented an astonishing 381 world premieres and 813 UK premieres – and, almost as importantly, provided a platform for many works to achieve that elusive second performance. Each year HCMF stages a minimum of four events a day (often more) in a variety of venues throughout the town.
Music performance (except opera) generally lies outside the scope of a theatre website, but artistic director Graham McKenzie is emphatic that he wants to find different ways, some of them theatrical, of presenting music. In seven years in charge he has looked to broaden the festival's scope, not relying solely on performances of written music. Not only does this increase the possibility of achieving every arts festival director's goal (the younger audience!), but it gives audiences a range of experiences to sample through the day.
Graham enthuses over the size of Huddersfield: the bold concert-goer can take in four performances a day at a comfortable walk even on the days when most performances move out from the festival's main base, St. Paul's Hall, the converted church which is now a fine concert hall on the edge of the university campus.
So we can look for visual and word-based presentations even if the 2013 festival contains no opera as such. For instance, in the first of several events at the Lawrence Batley Theatre (17 November), the [[cast:|Red Note Ensemble]] presents Enough Already by the French composer and artist Francois Sarhan, described by Graham McKenzie as being surrealist, very visual and using animation and film. The story of a man whose reading of a mysterious encyclopaedia drives him to extreme action, the piece features an actor alongside five musicians.
Perhaps the most remarkable musical/visual work this year comes on the first evening of the festival, at 10.30 p.m. at the Longside Gallery in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The advance publicity for A – a shadow opera by Norwegian composer Cecilie Ore comes out with opaque statements such as "A is an opera for voices and metal" and "not an opera, but a musical x-ray of an opera".
Graham McKenzie's description makes it a fascinating prospect, though still almost impossible to visualise. There are no performers and, unlike the fully staged first performance in Oslo, this features a brand-new video presentation by Torbjorn Ljunggren which, Graham assured me, will wrap itself around the audience.
Cecilie Ore's work is often highly political, with a strong feminist agenda. A recent subject has been the treatment of women prisoners on Death Row in the USA and, the afternoon following A – a shadow opera, her new work, Come to the Edge!, co-commissioned by HCMF and BBC Radio 3, premieres at St. Paul's Hall, one of 31 World premieres this year. Come to the Edge!, performed by the BBC Singers, quotes directly from the Pussy Riot trials in Russia.
From the opening concert, with the Arditti Quartet playing the music of the Composer in Residence, the Catalan Hèctor Parra, the Huddersfield Festival ranges wide, geographically and stylistically, with performers as different as jazz saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionist Simone Beneventi, who employs a prepared steel-string guitar and unexpected found objects to make his music.
Pride of place probably goes to the nonchalant programme note on the concert by Ian Pace and Frederik Croene at Phipps Hall as part of a day of piano duos on 20 November: "Adam de la Cour's Con-join for two handcuffed pianists pushes the boundaries of physical limitations."
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is formidably successful in both presenting and, in many cases, creating cutting edge music from many countries, but that doesn't mean it has to be solemn about it!
For further information visit www.hcmf.co.uk
- Ron Simpson