A series of firsts for foremost festival of new music

Today sees the launch of another edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Yvette Huddleston talks to the organiser.

Catalan composer Hector Parra who is the composer in residence at this years Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
Catalan composer Hector Parra who is the composer in residence at this years Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

THE Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, celebrating its 36th anniversary this year, opens today.

The festival is widely regarded as one of the foremost of its kind in Europe and this year’s exciting line-up, curated by Graham McKenzie, the festival’s artistic director since 2006, is sure to further enhance its reputation. Alongside its impressive list of concerts, talks, workshops, music-theatre and multi-media performances, the festival will also play host to a whole range of musical premieres – 31 world premieres and 94 UK premieres, to be precise – of major new works by some of the biggest names in the contemporary music world.

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“I don’t really like to be bound by pre-determined themes,” says McKenzie. “For me it’s always about music that I think has to be heard in the UK and it’s about finding a way to make that happen.”

Every year the festival features a composer in residence, a strand which supports and showcases the work of the world’s finest contemporary music composers. This year the programme will have at its centre acclaimed Catalan composer Hector Parra. Born in Barcelona and now based in Paris, Parra has already achieved a great deal at the relatively young age of 37. He is well established at IRCAM, a cultural institute for musical research in Paris, and is in demand among Europe’s leading ensembles. “Hector Parra had a piece performed at the festival two years ago and really that was the first time I had heard his music,” says McKenzie. “He had just won the Siemens Composers’ Prize and I got very interested in his work – it was so accomplished for someone who was still quite young. There then followed a lot of conversations around how we could find a way to perform the work I wanted to perform because it is quite large scale, but once Hector Parra was in place, a lot of things started to flow from that.”

The festival’s opening concert at St Paul’s Hall tonight will be a performance by the popular Arditti Quartet of Parra’s two string quartets – and the composer himself will be giving a pre-concert talk – while two of his large-scale works will receive their UK premiere next Friday, performed by BCN 216, Catalonia’s premier contemporary classical music ensemble. A selection of Parra’s work will be performed throughout the festival. Other premieres include a brand new work from renowned composer Brian Ferneyhough who will also attend its performance; the world premiere of Solitude by Rebecca Saunders, whose Royal Philharmoic Society award-winning work Fletch featured in last year’s festival, and the UK premiere of In Vain by Georg Friedrich Haas, described by Sir Simon Rattle as ‘one of the already acknowledged masterpieces of the 21st century.’

Another major highlight of the festival will be the performance of a new work by Norwegian composer Cecilie Ore for the BBC Singers, co-commissioned by the festival and BBC Radio 3. The piece, entitled Come to the Edge!, features extracts from the transcripts of the Pussy Riot trial and is an impassioned rallying cry in favour of freedom of speech and expression. “Cecilie Ore is one of the few composers who is dealing with politics in contemporary music,” says McKenzie. “She is looking at the big issues – her last opera dealt with female prisoners on death row in America – and she does it very effectively without compromising what she is doing musically.”

Another one of Ore’s works will be performed at the festival, her unsettling 2001 piece A. – a shadow opera, which will be presented in a new mixed-media version at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. “That has a very strong political message too,” says McKenzie. “It is an anti-war requiem and it puts the audience in the centre of the piece – inside the brains of those who are responsible for waging war.” On the final day the festival rounds off with Mytologier, a whole day of music dedicated to folk culture and mythology and its influence on contemporary and experimental music.

“It is one of those great days in a festival as a curator when you’re not terribly sure what’s going to happen,” says McKenzie, laughing.

“And that’s actually quite exciting.”