The Birmingham Music Contemporary Group, which is in residence at Zankel Hall this weekend, was founded 20 years ago by Simon Rattle, culling performers from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he then led. Since then, it has established itself as one of Europe's leading new music ensembles, having premiered over 100 new works.
In recent years, the BCMG has championed the music Irish composer Gerald Barry, whose chamber opera, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit (1992), received its long-overdue New York premiere last night. Barry, who has a strong reputation in Europe, is not well known in the States, which may account for the less-than-half full hall last night. (Miller Theater offered a Barry portrait concert back in November.) Those who did make it out were treated to a rare and virtuosic performance.
Triumph, which runs about an hour without intermission, is an allegory which purports to depict the age-old struggle between beauty and time, truth and deceit, pleasure and...all of the above. The opera was inspired by Handel's 18th century oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth, and uses the same all-male cast of tenors and countertenors. The music, which was both astringent and accessible, moved at a manic pace, giving both singers and players a vigorous workout.
The performance was led by British composer/conductor Thomas Adès, who is this season's holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer chair at Carnegie. Adès is no stranger to conducting, nor to the BCMG, having served as their music director for several seasons. In 2006, I saw Adès lead a knockout performance of Stravinsky's Les Noces at Birmingham Symphony Hall with the BCMG, four pianists (including Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Labeque sisters), and Russia's Pokrovsky Ensemble.
Adès returns with the BCMG tonight in a program of his own compositions that will feature him as both conductor and pianist. (He performed a solo piano recital at Zankel back in November.) The concert is sold out, but you can try for returns at the box office.