Walking into the concert hall at the RNCM last night I was struck by how small the room really is, with half of the area given over to the stage; and last night the stage was crammed with an array of instruments including two harps, three pianos, a celeste, a harpsichord, and goodness knows how much percussion, all making part of a 99-piece orchestra! My first thought being that if they were all to play fortissimo at the same time, then not only would all the audience's eardrums burst but the roof would also probably be blown off! [Of course neither happened and they did play fff some of the time too!!]

There were three works on offer last night. The first being the intriguingly entitled, 'The Listening Project Symphony' by Gary Carpenter. Taken on face value, this could be seen as a concerto for pre-recorded conversations and orchestra.

"The Listening Project is an audio-archive of conversations recorded by the BBC. People are invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative, to be recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC and to be curated and archived in full by the British Library." (The British Library).

The Listening Project Symphony was commissioned by the BBC to celebrate the first year of the project and was first performed on Radio 4 in December 2012.

To say that this was an ultra-modern piece of music, and to also use the words harmonic and melodic to describe it, sounds almost impossible. The work is not completely harmonic and melodic by any means but then again it is not completely atonal and dissonant either. It is a rather heady mix of all of them, and the outcome is surprising and tuneful. The music is there to amplify and embody the recorded dialogues which it does superbly. I was left wondering whether or not I would want to listen to the conversations without the music, or listen to the music without the conversations, and the answer to both was no. The two were inseparable. Long spaces of no music, just the conversation, followed by the two blending together, followed a space where the music surges to a huge crescendo with no talking, only to decrescendo and bring the voices back in again. Rising and falling musically just as conversations do quite naturally.

The text of the conversations was written in full in the programme. I started to read along at first, but soon abandoned this since I was giving too much attention to that and not enough to the music and needed to listen to them both as one.

The piece received a well deserved and hearty round of applause, and to my surprise, the composer had been in attendance and walked on stage too to take his bow.

The second piece was Schnittke's viola concerto. Alfred Schnittke, although born in the then Soviet Union, he is German Jewish, and as such his music is infused with all three of these influences. There is also a delightful Viennese Waltz parody towards the beginning of the third movement, followed by what I can only describe as 'Homage to The film, The Third Man', the music and style being so reminiscent of that iconic and unforgettable opening sequence. Schnittke perfectly captures and encapsulates the Viennese musical zeitgeist of the time he spent there.

The concerto is not a traditional one in at least two ways. First, the score is written without violins, and second, the three movements go in opposition to the classical norm, and here we have largo, allegro molto, largo.

The solo viola (basically a slightly bigger violin) was played in this evening's concert by Kimi Makino, a diminutive Japanese lady who for all her obvious talent, credits and awards, is still studying and perfecting her craft under Gareth Knox at the RNCM. She is already a virtuoso and her rendition of the concerto last night was nothing short of absolutely brilliant. In the fast second movement her bow was travelling across the strings at one hundred miles an hour and it never ceased. I may not have liked the music - and I didn't - but I certainly cannot deny the talent and strength of Ms. Makino. To be honest I was quite surprised that the instrument was able to take such a battering! I did not until last night know of the works of Schnittke, and if the viola concerto is a good example of his compositions, then I don't want any more; it's not my bag at all, but the orchestra under the direction of Clark Rundell, and Ms. Makino's viola expertise did everything in their power to try and covert me by playing it with bravura and passion, and I suspect, technical excellence too!

After the interval, and I was on safer and more secure ground. A composer and a piece that I was familiar with! After the first half, listening to Stravinsky was a little like listening to Whitney Houston after coming from a Whitesnake concert! I exaggerate of course, but it is a simple analogy for the uninitiated! Both are 'pop' artists, but approach their music from a completely different angle. Stravinsky's music is steeped in the Classical tradition despite his best efforts to be contemporary, and he uses a conventional orchestra, and writes for a very conventional medium - the ballet. His music is full of tunes and although dissonant at times with difficult contrapuntal rhythms, you can still imagine the dances that would have enfolded when first this music was played in Paris for the Ballet-Russe.

Further, Stravinsky, in this rewritten concert version, has tried to hide his Russian-ness and bring the music more in-line with his European thinking. We hear, immediately after the opening loud chords, a lovely jaunty little Parisian melody evoking a stroll along the banks of the Seine perhaps. However, once that finishes and the strident chords return the music most definitely continues with a distinct Russian flavour, and there is even the stirrings of a Russian Folk Song in there too, proving that you can take the boy out of Russia etc..........!

The orchestra, all 99 of them, are all still RNCM students. How can that be, when they played so professionally, so magnificently, so competently and effortlessly. It was the first time I had heard them play. It most certainly won't be the last. Mr. Rundell, the conductor, is also the head of conducting at the RNCM and so obviously knows each of these players individually and thus able to coax every last ounce of nuance and dynamic from them in order to be able to create such a full and rounded sound.

I mentioned right at the beginning, in the title in fact, that this concert marked the start of short festival at the RNCM which celebrates and performs new compositions. New Music North West, which has a variety of concerts, some of them free and unticketed right up until the 29th January. Check out www.rncm.ac.uk/nmnw for listings of all the concerts. Some have world premiers and some have the composers in attendance. There are performances, masterclasses and talks by the composers themselves.

Reviewer: Mark Dee

Reviewed: 22nd January 2016