Heady cosmopolitan mix of contemporary music at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Qigang Chen, Metcalf, Bowden, Reich: Gerard McChrystal (soprano saxophone), Oliver Coates (cello), Sound intermedia (sound diffusion),  BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jean-Michaël Lavoie (conductor), BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 9.9.2011 (Gpu)

Qigang Chen    Wu Xing (The Five Elements)
Metcalf              Three Mobiles for Soprano Saxophone and Orchestra
Bowden             Lyra for Cello and Orchestra (BBC Commission, World Premiere)
Reich                 City Life

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival was founded by composer John Metcalf in 1969. Since 1992 it has been given over entirely to the work of living composers and has thus been able to make a distinctive contribution to the musical landscape in Wales (and well beyond). Particular festivals have often concentrated on the music of a particular country or culture and/or featured the work of specific individual composers in extenso. A great many works have had their premieres in the Festival over the years and many interesting and significant composers have been visitors, giving interviews and talks (Arvo Pärt was a special guest at the 2010 Festival, for example).

This year’s programme was spread over a period of five days (September 6th to 10th) and included music by, inter alia, Pärt, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Valentine Silvestrov, Pēteris Vasks, Philip Glass, Per Nørgård, Gareth Glyn, Hilary Tann, Paul Mealor and Meredith Monk. Performers included the Latvian Radio Choir (familiar visitors to the Festival), Jeremy Huw Williams and the piano duo of Sandra and Jeroen van Veen. It’s a heady mix and my only regret is that other commitments prevented my attending any more than this one concert which was prefaced by an important announcement from John Metcalf, who remains the Festival’s Artistic Director.

Running counter to the prevailing cuts and retrenchments the Festival is, happily, to expand. From 2012 it will move from September to spring, following Easter each year. Next year’s festival will be eleven days long, thanks to what has been described as “a significant uplift in funding”. The switch to spring will make possible what John Metcalf has described as a long-held wish “to develop projects with partners in both the arts and higher education sector”. A press release explains that building on the support of the Arts Council of Wales and Vale of Glamorgan Council, “the Festival is on course to secure upwards of £50,000 from international sources for 2012 and is committed to retaining this level of funding for 2013 and 2014. Financial backing from Denmark and the Confucius Institute, based at Trinity St. David’s University, will contribute to visits from Danish and Chinese artists next year whilst the support of the Chicago-based organisation Soli De Gloria will secure a series of choral commissions”. Refreshing and exciting news indeed in these difficult times.

China, Wales and the USA were represented in the music heard in this consistently interesting concert given by various configurations of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales joined by some accomplished soloists. Having said that, there was a certain French quality to the first two works heard. Qigang Chen (born 1951) is perhaps still best known for having been Director of Music for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. His earlier years had included three years of confinement and “ideological re-education” at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Later he was able to study with Messiaen in Paris.

Wu Xing was actually commissioned by Radio France in 1988 and is made up of five short pieces (the whole runs for some 12-13 minutes) each characterising one of the five elements (water, wood, fire, earth, metal) of traditional Chinese philosophy, which were often used to represent cycles of transformation – so that, for example, water enables wood to grow, wood enables fire to burn, fire produces ashes which fertilise the earth, the earth yields metals and metals can be used to transport water to continue the cycle. Chen’s music audibly endeavoured to represent something of this process of generative transformation and unity, of a cyclical return to origins. Some of the musical language deployed in the quasi-impressionistic representation of the elements reminded one not so much of Messiaen as of Debussy (a significant influence on Messiaen of course), not least in the rippling harp formulations of ‘Water’ and the diaphanous textures of the same piece; the prominence of percussion and piccolo in ‘Wood’ created a sound world more immediately reminiscent of Messiaen but without any degree of mere pastiche; the writing for brass and woodwinds at the beginning of ‘Fire’ was particularly impressive as was the use of the low strings at the beginning of ‘Earth’ from which other sounds burgeoned, not least the piccolo and flutes in a manner suggestive (dare one say it?) of bird song; the fierce brass, percussive piano and tubular bells of ‘Metal’ had an obvious appositeness. The whole was both exciting and thought-provoking. I wonder whether it might not be interesting to hear the pieces in a different order, or in the same order but beginning at a different point in the sequence?

John Metcalf’s Three Mobiles is also essentially cyclical in nature. A helpful note by the composer explains that “the harmony in these pieces is entirely diatonic and moves through a 36-chord sequence with the bass descending each time by a single step. Like a mobile, therefore, the essential structure remains the same as the surface pattern changes”. Made up, obviously enough, of three pieces, of which the outer two are quicker than the central one, the work clearly references the conventions of concerto too. A lucid and elegant piece, Three Mobiles has affinities with French music for saxophone by composers such as Milhaud, Françaix or even Jolivet. Gerard McChrystal’s work was exemplary and conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie ensured an attractive balance between soloist and orchestra (strings only) and some well judged tempi. The rhapsodic second piece was beautifully articulated, just enough acid sharpening its sweetness and the dialogue between saxophone and strings in the brief final piece was wittily handled. Three Mobiles is not one of Metcalf’s major works, but it fitted perfectly into this well designed programme.

The highlight of the evening was the premiered work by young Welsh composer Mark Bowden (born 1979), who is currently Resident Composer with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Lyra is a richly allusive work, full of musical ideas and of extra-musical ideas effectively translated. Its very title refers simultaneously to the heroine of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (Lyra Belacqua) to the constellation that carries its name, to the lyre and to the bass viol (which was sometimes referred to as the lyra in the seventeenth century. Apparently ‘Lyra’ was also the name of a class of Russian hunter/killer nuclear powered submarines, and one section of Bowden’s piece carries the title ‘crush depth’ (the others being ‘vega’ and ‘ayr’), a term which designates the depth at which the hull of a specific submarine will collapse under pressure. All of these were informing presences and so perhaps was the myth of Orpheus, given that some accounts explain the constellation as the harp of Orpheus transposed to heaven after his death.

Bowden’s response to all this is a work of considerable scope and ambition, a work both exploratory and essentially clear in structure, endowed with that simultaneity of surprise and (retrospectively) inevitability that so often characterises successful pieces. This premiere benefitted greatly from the contribution of the highly impressive young cellist Oliver Coates, whose playing had brightness and poignancy alike and whose control of both tone and phrase was impeccable. Bowden’s writing exploits the resources of the orchestra in terms of instrumental groupings which are often unexpected, though the juxtapositions he creates never seemed to owe anything to mere show or gimmickry. Everything made sense, as passages of (starry?) radiance coexisted with darker, more violent music; elsewhere there is music which clearly alludes to and echoes the sound world of the bass viol, not least in the coda in which the C-string of the cello is tuned down almost an octave, the result suggesting not only the exploration of a kind of “crush depth” but also an Orphic descent. This is a fine, challenging but accessible piece and one hopes that it will get many more performances.

Steve Reich’s City Life has already had many performances (and recordings) since it was written in 1994 (or 1995 according to some references). In some ways it now seems a little old-fashioned (which description is not intended as a value judgement) as a vision of city life. The sheer symmetry of its form, disposed along an A-B-C-B-A arch, the regularity of its patterns, while it obviously responds to much in modern city life, will surely strike more than myself as unduly orderly, even celebratory. I wasn’t totally convinced by this particular performance; just once or twice there was some imprecision in the rhythmic pulses and, from where I was sitting at any rate, some of the sampled sounds (especially the voices) were less clearly audible than at previous performances of the piece that I have heard. The start of the performance was delayed by technical problems with one of the sampling keyboards – maybe that affected things in the actual performance? Certainly the balance between orchestral and sampled sounds wasn’t quite right.

It is extraordinarily good news that the Vale of Glamorgan Festival will be able to expand as of next year. It wouldn’t, of course, be quite such good news if their programming wasn’t so consistently interesting and enterprising and the standard of performance so generally good.

Glyn Pursglove