Flash Contemporarium Showcases Three World Premières

08/05/2018

Daniel Parsons and Luciano Williamson – Flash Contemporarium: Connor Fogel (piano), Andrew Martin (flute), Hiroko Sue (koto), Harvey Kelly (cello), chamber ensemble / Luciano Williamson (conductor). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 6.5.2018. (PCG)

Daniel Parsons – Bai-On, Flute Concerto (world premières)

Luciano Williamson – Piano Concerto (world première)

A couple of months ago, reviewing a concert of new music given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, I remarked with some favour on Luciano Williamson’s short piece Electric Blue and described his ‘flickering changes of rhythm’ as ‘rumbustious’. Following the appearance of that review, I was contacted by the pianist Connor Fogel, whose recording last year of my own Tolkien-inspired piano rondo Akallabêth for Prima Facie records had rescued a long-neglected work from obscurity. He said that he was giving the world première performance of the composer’s piano concerto, which he thought I would find interesting. This public concert was given to celebrate the graduation of Williamson from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and the results on display disclosed a student of exceptional promise.

In the first place, the formal construction of the twenty-five minute Piano Concerto is peculiar. It could perhaps be described, as the composer did in his programme note, as a series of ‘sixteen contiguous variations’. These variations, though, do not proceed from a single theme, but instead form a continuous series of developments, taking ideas from the previous section and then expanding them further to form a new basis for the section that follows thereafter – and so on. To begin with, I was disconcerted by the fragmentary nature of the structure that resulted, with no pre-determined theme to which the music could be related. This was not assisted by the extremely loud orchestration from the very outset. Even when Connor Fogel could be seen stretched crucifix-like across the keyboard with his hands at the extreme registers thundering and trilling away, very little of his contribution could actually be heard above the sounds produced by the chamber group of fourteen players even from where I was sitting a mere six rows back in the auditorium. After a while, however, the music seemed to gather inner strength and cohesion (or maybe I was simply adjusting to the idiom); the onward force of its progress gave us the autobiographical impression which the composer outlined in his programme, a sort of purging of inner demons or – as he described it, more graphically – ‘a Ragnarok, a great flood, a phoenix regenerating with apocalyptic destruction’ (whew!). There were some quiet moments, but all too soon these were overwhelmed by an acceleration into more frenetic piano writing in which the influence of Messiaen’s Turangalila was evident; these progressively gathered even greater strength, moving to a series of pounding and seemingly terminal final chords, with the pianist collapsed across the keyboard smashing the instrument with both forearms and the orchestral climax dying away, all passion spent. And then, in a moment of sheer magic, a wistful piano theme emerged from the soloist, rather like a frightened mouse creeping timidly out from beneath the ruins. This was a remarkably effective piece of musical theatre, and I was all the more surprised to be told afterwards that it was a last-minute addition to the score. (By the way, I was also told that the puzzling adjective in Luciano Williamson’s Electric Blue was a similar piece of whimsically quixotic titling.) This concerto may have been the work of a student, but it displayed an imagination and maturity to rival many scores by more mature composers.

In the first half of the concert, we heard two further world premières, this time of works by Daniel Parsons. Bai-On was a work in total contrast to the orgasmic piano concerto, a delicate piece for just two instruments – koto and cello. It began with the two soloists in isolation, repeated rhythms on the cello reflected by a discreetly ambient background on the koto; and it took some time for the players to form a unity with each other. There were points where this co-ordination was clearly problematic – synchronising cello pizzicati with isolated notes on the koto must be fiendishly difficult technically – but the piece moved towards a convincingly unified and satisfying conclusion.

The composer stated in his programme note that he wished to explore all the registers of the solo instrument in his ten-minute Flute Concerto, ‘from breathy low tones to piercing high shrieks’ but during the first section of the work it was the latter which predominated, with the upper and middle registers predominating and passages of sustained legato rare or non-existent. A slower section which followed provided some elements of greater warmth, but it seemed very brief (hardly substantial enough to constitute a slow movement) before it gathered energy once more and launched into a finale which gave way in due course to a florid cadenza. Interestingly, this was followed by a slow coda instead of the expected flurry of closing virtuosity, which did something to provide the sense of relaxation which would have been welcome earlier. Andrew Martin was certainly well able to cope with the difficulties with which Parsons had confronted him. It was also interesting to note that the composer felt no need to call upon some of the more abstruse avant-garde devices with which some modernists feel impelled to pepper their scores.

I should also have mentioned earlier Connor Fogel’s amazing virtuosity and expertise in Luciano Williamson’s Piano Concerto, but then, I would have expected that. Although he told me afterwards he had been nervous, no suspicion of that was apparent in his performance.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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