Brighton Festival – Metamorphosis – 12 Ensemble

I had really wanted to enjoy this event which was to include two new works by living composers, an exotic piece from an eccentric gay martyr and the last great lament of the Romantic era, for which 12 Ensemble was made up to the required 23 players.

I was surprised to find a temporary stage set up in the newly refurbished Corn Exchange. How would those heavy-looking black curtains affect the acoustics? Well, probably not much but the vast transparent screen across the proscenium made the players remote from the audience, boxed in. We were at risk of failing to connect. The first number, ‘Hymn (after Byrd)’ by Edmund Finnis was a slow movement taken from his string quartet, not a new work as advertised. However, its plainchant roots were clear and it was pleasant enough. I look forward to hearing the whole quartet sometime. However, I was distracted by the smoky wraiths that were projected on the proscenium screen. The programme notes list five technicians and five dancers who were involved in preparing this display. Apparently this would provide the ‘transformative power of music within an immersive, AI generated holographic world’ as offered in the Festival programme. It did not relate to the music.

‘Zipangu’, a kabuki inspired fantasy by Claude Vivier, has been called his most aggressive and “unforgiving” piece. It’s certainly very emotive and makes use of many unconventional techniques, glissandi, pluckings and trills, so it was just as well that such a talented ensemble was playing it. The display may have had some link to the stark music but it did not enhance it. I shall look out for more of Vivier’s work and hope it is played as skillfully.

Oliver Leith’s pretentiously labelled ‘Non voglio mai vedere il sole tramontare’, or ‘I never want to see the sun set’ was another slow, atmospheric work, also not new, but an extract from his 2022 opera ‘Last Days’. 12 Ensemble no doubt did it justice.


METAMORPHOSIS – 12 Ensemble – Credit RAPHAEL

Richard Strauss composed his ‘Metamorphosen’ in response to the destruction of Germany during World War II. It lasts a wonderful half hour and 12 Ensemble played it most sensitively. When in 2014 the strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra performed this work in the derelict Circus Street Market to celebrate Strauss’s 150th birthday the leaking roof was an unwelcome but strangely appropriate distraction. Images of the ruins of the opera houses of Dresden, Berlin, Vienna, of the culture that Strauss grieved for, these may have been fitting if rather obvious. The parodies of deep-ocean mutants that writhed and morphed in front of the band caused me to shut my eyes. The sounds were truly beautiful.

I regret that 12 Ensemble needed to shelter behind that screen. I wonder if they could experience their audience at all. Perhaps, without a conductor, they prefer to play just for themselves. Perhaps they don’t like to be observed or scrutinised as they play. Maybe they received extra special funding for the light show. They are certainly worth much more than to be just background music!

Brighton Dome Corn Exchange,
4 May 2024
Andrew Connal


Edmund Finnis – Hymn (after Byrd)
Claude Vivier – Zipangu
Oliver Leith – Non voglio mai vedere il sole tramontare
Richard Strauss – Metamorphosen

Leave a Comment

Related Articles