Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's concerts on November 18 and December 9 will be both a poignant looking-back and an optimistic step into the future.

Oliver Knussen, BCMG's long-term Artist-in-Association, was to have conducted the November 18 concert, but following his sadly premature death only in his mid-60s on July 8 this year, his place on the podium will be taken by Stefan Asbury.

But Olly will be a major presence here, with the Birmingham premiere of his O Hototogisu, funded through BCMG's remarkable crowd-funding Sound Investment scheme.  This beautiful setting of selected haiku for soprano, solo flute and ensemble was in fact his last commission, and the texts weave an intricate image of the Hototogisu - the Lesser Cuckoo - as it calls out high above a Japanese city in the shadow of a mountain. In haiku, its cry simultaneously signals the coming summer and is believed to be a voice from the land of the dead.

I heard its world premiere last year at the Aldeburgh Festival, with Knussen conducting the BCMG, and with Claire Booth the soprano soloist alter ego'd by flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic, who recently reminisced with me about that occasion.

Knussen was notoriously lax in his keeping to deadlines, and his composing of O Hototogisu was true to form, so much so that he wanted to cancel the performance. "But the Festival insisted," says Marie-Christine, "and I remember him about a week before the premiere writing furiously in the CBSO Centre to achieve a temporary ending. Who knows what he would have added as a conclusion."

  • This concert also features the world premiere of David Sawer's Caravanserai, commissioned by BCMG and the Feeney Trust, whose munificence over many decades has brought so much benefit to the arts in the city. The piece sees musical ideas passed from musician to musician along a line, like goods exchanged along the caravans of history. David Sawer will discuss this intriguing work in a pre-concert talk at 3pm.
  • Marking 100 years since the death of Debussy, who was such an influence on subsequent generations of composers, the concert opens with his gently erotic Chansons de Bilitis. We will also hear the Birmingham premiere of the complete cycle of Harrison Birtwistle’s Three Songs from ‘The Holy Forest’; settings of Robin Blaser’s poems ‘The Literalist’, ‘dear dusty moth’ and ‘The Borrower’.

Book tickets for O Hototogisu! online

December 9 brings "a massive hope for the future" (as Elgar said of his First Symphony), when BCMG performs its first concert in the Bradshaw Hall at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Those of us of a certain age will remember that BCMG gave its inaugural concerts in the Adrian Boult Hall of the old Conservatoire building in Paradise Place.

Entitled "Ideal and Flying Height", the concert marks the launch of NEXT, a new joint initiative between BCMG and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where emerging young professional performers will train alongside BCMG musicians.

Reinforcing this, the programme decidedly and defiantly trumpets our region, appropriately so in the case of Coventry-born Brian Ferneyhough, celebrating his 75th birthday this year, and once a trumpeter in the Midland Youth Orchestra.

I remember him half-a-century ago conducting a contemporary music ensemble at the Barber Institute. Since those days his music has become renowned for its dense complexity of texture which never clouds an intense feeling for expressive communication, and this concert brings the chance to savour several of his works, not least La Chute d'Icare which gives the title to the programme, joined by Funerailles I and II (commentaries on Liszt).

Continuing the local theme, we also have works by Sutton Coldfield-born Jonathan Harvey (his Scena of 1992), Charlotte Bray (RBC alumna and former BCMG Apprentice Composer in Residence), who is represented by her Beneath the Dawn Horizon, and Michael Wolters, deputy head of composition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, with his Trauerkonzert.

Oliver Janes is solo clarinet in this programme, the Arditti Quartet, so adept in the music of Brian Ferneyhough, Elliott Carter, and a whole panoply of the most technically exploratory composers, are guest artists, and Emilio Pomarico, a composer himself as well as a passionate advocate of contemporary music, conducts.

Book tickets for Ideal and Flying Height online