Dillon / London Sinfonietta

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

In the manner of everything at this year’s 3-day Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the closing concert – a 70th birthday tribute to Scots-born composer James Dillon – was a remote experience. It’s been impossible, due to Covid, to enjoy things in the truly live sense, but the mixture of the Festival’s own digital streaming and BBC Radio 3 broadcasts kept this year’s event, curated by its Scots artistic director Graham McKenzie, alive. 

These two Dillon world premieres on Sunday evening came to us courtesy of Radio 3’s New Music Show. Even that was supposed to be a live broadcast, but recent increased restrictions meant that the ensemble piece Pharmakeia had to be recorded earlier “as live” in London’s Royal Festival Hall, played by the wonderful London Sinfonietta. The new solo piano work “echo the angelus” also materialised as a pre-recording, this time from Broadcasting House in London, performed by the composer’s partner Noriko Kawai.

Pharmakeia lasts over 50 minutes, and rather typically of Dillon’s individualistic music represents a journey that challenges mainstream modernist thinking. The title is from the Greek meaning sorcery, and from the outset the images are intoxicating and beguiling. There’s a deliberate sense of ritual, too, in a simple opening unison incantation twisted by punctuative spectral distortion on the trumpet, an effect that weirdly humanises its presence. It’s a gently provocative invitation to a work that, throughout its four movements, encompasses the dizzy, the hallucinogenic, the ethereal and the demonic.

The musical journey, as we’ve become used to in Dillon’s music, is something we have to make up our own mind about. The destination “is anyone’s guess” declared the London Sinfonietta’s conductor Geoffrey Paterson in his pre-performance interview. “It symbolises something, goodness knows what.” 

But that’s also its fascination. This performance, supremely performed by a 16-part ensemble with two pianos and percussion at its heart, captured a glorious sense of the epic, but equally found endless riches of colour and intricate detail that are the lifeblood of this work. Where Pharmakeia undoubtedly possesses daunting complexities and tough technical demands, they are a means to a tantalising hyper-expressive end. 

From primitive archaism to melancholic modernism, manic extroversion to blissful introversion, with moments even as serene as Mahler, Dillon’s language is essentially non-categorisable, but that is its magic, or should that be its sorcery. 

To then hear that fusion of the monumental and the momentary translated into piano terms in “echo the angelus” was a powerful and winning complement. At its heart are textures as delicate as fine porcelain, but not without force and presence.

Kawai, in her lustrous performance, found plentiful wit, frivolity and magical threads of impressionist-like haze. But in addressing the key compositional components – Dillon’s preoccupation here with cascading finger gestures, solid harmonic underlay and thrilling resonances that surface as a result — she captured an overall compelling elusiveness that so movingly ends with the sublime image of tolling bells.

Dillon’s music has been castigated so often in the past for its alienating quality. Here was plentiful reason to challenge such a view.
Ken Walton

Listen again on the BBC Radio 3 website
A filmed version of Pharmakeia will be released soon on the London Sinfonietta website.