The student becomes the master: new music from Effy Efthymiou and Silvina Milstein

A poky backroom in the rafters of King’s College’s Strand Campus seems an unworthy venue for a celebration of women’s achievements in contemporary composition, or indeed the pioneering soundworlds of composers Effy Efthymiou and Silvina Milstein. But in spite of the damp acoustic and gaudy plastic chairs, new music ensemble Lontano - lead by Odaline de la Martinez, first woman in history to conduct at the BBC Proms - delivered captivating interpretations of their music.

Having originally studied with the likes of Judith Weir and Alexander Goehr in the 70s, Argentine-born Milstein has become a celebrated member of the UK contemporary art music scene. She has been commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and the Endellion String Quartet, as well as receiving world premieres of her work from the BBC Singers and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Her research as an academic has led to a book on Arnold Schoenberg’s compositional processes, and you can hear his and Goehr’s influence quite clearly articulated through her daring, almost chaotic use of tonality in the four works performed on Tuesday night. 

Ochre, umber and burnt sienna, written for Lontano in 2012 and inspired by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s depictions of women ‘pondering in their private spaces’, is a masterpiece in orchestration. Scored for two double basses, alto flute, harp and three violins (one of which has its bottom string tuned a semitone lower), this combination of timbres brilliantly conveys the earthy pigments described in the title. Surges of artificial harmonic clusters and Sul ponticello tremolos in the strings undermine the murky palette to convey effectively the unsettling, domestic serenity of Vermeer’s subjects. Martinez did well to energise the performance, and it was delivered by Lontano with the pace and direction required to keep such a heavy work from feeling static as the portraits it conveys.

Vermeer’s  The Lacemaker  was one of the paintings that inspired Milstein’s  Ochre, umber and burnt sienna

Vermeer’s The Lacemaker was one of the paintings that inspired Milstein’s Ochre, umber and burnt sienna

Crystal and Whispers (also written for Lontano) and the second movement of Book of shadows followed an intensely poetic performance from Angela Najaryan of and told her in words that have no sound. The piece was commissioned in 2001 by Irish violinist Darragh Morgan, and Najaryan overcame it’s virtuosic requirements with ease, expertly navigating the assortment of extended techniques that dot Milstein’s score. 

For me however it was the two works by Efthymiou - who is currently studying under Milstein for a PhD in composition at King’s - that I found most compelling. Where they flocked for mixed quintet and percussion has a clear and persuasive musical narrative, reinforced by an instinctive, almost visceral feel for melody. The tightly wound atmosphere of the first section combines frantic violin passages with brutal interjections from the snare drum and marimba. This tension is gradually reworked throughout the slower middle section, before being exquisitely released by the descending clarinet glissando that marks the end of the work. Her second piece, the shorter and enigmatically titled Even if it is only a whisper, written for two violins, has a similarly ferocious energy (‘Fast, forced and with vigour’ is the performance direction), and was conveyed heroically on the night by Madeleine Mitchell and Gordon Mackay. The relentless semiquaver-demisemiquaver pattern argues its way in and out of the texture before concluding reluctantly in both parts on a pianissimo, G major chord - perhaps resorting at last to the eponymous whisper. It is little wonder that a work of such maturity and character has earned Efthymiou a place on the shortlist for the 2018 Ivan Juritz Prize.

The concert was followed by a round-table discussion, chaired by Mathew Head, on changing attitudes towards women as composers. A natural orator, Milstein spoke passionately of the great debt she owes to her ‘fathers’ (Mozart, Beethoven and Bach), but reinforced the necessity of events like this, not only to propel women composers into the limelight, but to inspire others. Efthymiou expressed her wish for composers not to be seen as ‘male’ or ‘female’, but simply as composers, adding that she hoped one day that the BBC Proms will not to need to split commissions equally according to gender, but simply give them to the best candidates on the basis that half are women. If the Tuesday’s concert was anything to go by, I’d say we shan’t have to wait long.