Recent British Music Worth Repeating—No, I Mean Right Now

21/02/2013

  Tippett, Knussen, Turnage, Britten: Trevor Nuckols (horn), Juilliard Orchestra, Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 1.2.2013 (BH)

Tippett: Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage (1947-1952)
Knussen: Horn Concerto, Op. 28 (1994)
Turnage: Ceres (2005)
Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940)

I wish more conductors would follow Mark Wigglesworth’s example at the closing evening of Juilliard’s Focus! Festival, curated by Joel Sachs, who this year dedicated the week to post-war British composers. After a handsomely detailed reading of Ceres by Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960), Wigglesworth turned to the audience and announced that it would be played again, in keeping with an orchestral tradition not usually observed in the 21st century. (It didn’t hurt that the piece is short, about six minutes.) Facing Turnage’s score a second time, I could better appreciate his imaginative use of the instrumental color, with huge chunks of sound hurling themselves against each other (Ceres is about an asteroid, after all), and a magnificent ending showing the double basses burning through the group with a strange, sandpapery timbre. Between Wigglesworth’s clear advocacy and the orchestra’s powerhouse performance, I could have heard it a third time, with pleasure.

The intelligently designed program—with substantial works from four of Britain’s most influential voices—began with Sir Michael Tippett’s Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage. In four contrasting sections, the suite includes four sacrificial dances tied to the four seasons and the four elements (air, earth, fire and water), all using the orchestra with freshness and vigor. A choreographer would salivate at the chance to bring these to life, especially after hearing Wigglesworth and the orchestra in this sparkling reading.

Oliver Knussen says his favorite instrument is the horn, and his concerto is an engaging dialogue—even a romp—originally created for the hornist Barry Tuckwell. In a single movement, the concerto explores the instrument’s “spatial” qualities (per the composer), interacting with a large orchestra. Here the fearless soloist was Trevor Nuckols, calmly playing with zero disruptions in tone or line (and if you know how difficult this instrument is to play, you can empathize), which gave the dual pleasure of showcasing Knussen’s piece—while giving a lucky audience a primer in great horn playing.

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem—one of his finest works—made an impressive finale. (PS, Wigglesworth didn’t use a score except in Turnage’s piece.) With the orchestra’s strings in sweeping ardor, the first movement has a gravitas that the conductor captured perfectly. The startlingly brittle, acidic “Dies Irae” provided the night’s best evidence of the orchestra’s unanimity. And when the entire ensemble swept into the final “Requiem aeternam”—a stirring andante—it was with contrastingly quiet grace.

Bruce Hodges

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