Contemporary Concert Launches New Welsh Musical Partnership

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Watkins, Boden, Macrae, Sciarrino, Turnage: Miranda Fulleylove (violin), Yuko Inoue (viola), Daisy Vatalaro (cello), Jo Shaw (flute), Scott Lygate (clarinet), Huw Watkins (piano, celeste), Julian Warburton (percussion) / Michael Rafferty (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 4.10.2012 (GPu)

Huw Watkins: Four Inventions
Mark David Boden: Between Waking and Dreams
Stuart MacRae: (Equilibrium)
Huw Watkins: Speak Seven Seas
Salvatore Sciarrino: Lo Spazio Inverso
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Grazioso!

Since its foundation in 1988 Music Theatre Wales has been ceaselessly resourceful in its preparation and touring of a whole series (now almost 30 in total) of enterprising and often outstanding productions of contemporary opera (see MTW has worked with many partners over the years – the Royal Opera House in London, Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, the Haarlem Theatre in the Netherlands and Scottish opera, for example. This concert marked the beginning of a new partnership (which has the financial support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which promises to generate both events open to the public and intra-mural activities involving student musicians and composers.

All the pieces performed were by composers with recent and/or current connections with MTW – composers of operas already produced (and in some cases currently touring) or due for production in the near future. Three of the five composers were present and were interviewed briefly about their works.

It was, however, one of the composers not present who was responsible for the undoubted highlight of the evening. It was to Lo Spazio inverso (1984) that Sciarrino was referring when he wrote of how “in the desert, the physiognomic traits appear as outlines—pulsating islands of sound sketch seas of silence. Within this silence we find the sounds of our body, we recognise them as our primeval own and hear the smallest tensions of intervals like will-‘o-the-wisps, which—devoid of all drama—light up as gestures in the dark. Our mind is generous enough to accept this wretchedly fragile music. Music is no longer made to put market places to sleep but to awaken realisation at the moment when the market falls silent in us”. This is music of a great, but subtle, beauty, its hushed opening sounds, quasi-musical, quasi-physiological sounds, proto-musical gestures seeking embodiment in sound, are allowed to burgeon briefly in the limited light of existence. Their “tensions”, however small, seem to articulate the nature of origins, not least of music itself. Sciarrino’s deployment of his instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and celesta) produces sounds which somehow contrive to sound simultaneously tentative and yet definitively necessary. This is a poetic meditation, both simple and rich, on origins and evanescence, although the very word meditation suggests an objective observation false to the experience of the music. The work got a sensitive, disciplined unfussy, articulate performance – the warm reception it received registering an appreciation both of the quiet power of Sciarrino’s music and the unpedantic precision of the performance it got.

Huw Watkins had begun the evening with a performance of his four brief ‘inventions’ for solo piano, composed in 2009. The first is built around a stark pattern of contrast, in dynamics, in the alternation between the percussive and the gentle, the dissonant and the tonal. The second is more tenderly lyrical and the third full of rippling figures and interesting rhythmic patterns. The last has a kind of wistful calm. The score of the work gives the pieces titles: Declamatory, Hesitant, Breathless and Serene, though no reference was made to these titles at this performance.

If Four Inventions shows us Watkins operating in short breaths, as it were, his second work on the programme found him working on a somewhat larger scale. Speak Seven Seas (2011), for clarinet, viola and piano takes its title from Dylan Thomas’s ‘Author’s Prologue’, in lines which speak of


That speak seven seas,

Eternal waters away …”

There are passages in Speak Seven Seas of what one might call atone-poemish kind but for the most part its ‘seaness’ is a matter of process rather than picture, in which the sea and its movements, its simultaneous unchangingness and constant change, its embodiment of the tension between energy and form, stasis and movement, serve as metaphors for the processes of creative invention and musical expression. Particularly interesting was the elegant inventiveness of Watkins’ deployment of the three instruments, with one or more often silent, producing a considerable range of textures; the writing for the duo of viola and clarinet was amongst the most attractive in the work.

There was a poetic reference in Mark David Boden’s Between Waking and Dreams (2012) too. Boden explained that one of the origins of the composition lay in his reading of a poem by a Polish poet (whose name I didn’t catch) which begins with the experience of looking at the tranquillity of the shimmering clouds through the windows of an aeroplane and ends with the hectic urban bustle encountered after landing. Boden’s piece reflects these poles of the tranquil and the over-busy, in alternating passages well scored for piano, clarinet, violin and cello. The antithesis is, of course, as much a matter of the dialogue between two ‘places’ of the mind as between two geographical locations in air and earth. The interplay between two musical ‘states’ is effectively delineated, the fulfilment of the work’s design largely effected by the clarinet in some complex and striking writing in a long solo which pulls together much of the material introduced by the other instruments.

The viola is the foregrounded presence in Stuart MacRae’s Equilibrium (2008), a small-scale quasi-concerto for viola and an ensemble of piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinets. MacRae’s writing is full of ideas, not least in a ‘ghostly’ slow section and a turbulent climax; from a relatively simple start the work traces an arc through increasing abundance and complexity to a different kind of simplicity at its close, a simplicity in which there is more knowingness, the innocence only possible after experience.

Turnage’s instrumental works don’t often appeal to me (the vocal writing is a different matter) and hearing his Grazioso! (2009) immediately after Sciarrino’s work, it was hard not to feel that it had something of the faux-primitive about it, an aggressiveness which, though it generated some powerful moments, was disappointingly narrow in its emotional range (and, to some extent, in its instrumental inventiveness). But many others – whose opinions I respect – find more in Turnage’s instrumental writing than I do, and my comments may reflect nothing more than my own failure to get to grips with Turnage’s characteristic idiom, which seems to me, I confess, so narrowly insistent as to come close to self-parody at times.

But it is of the very nature of contemporary music (and a perfectly healthy state of affairs) that no one listener is likely to find all of it satisfying. For me at least, an evening which contained one masterpiece and several other very interesting works made both an impressive ‘launch’ and an effective pledge of future rewards; it was an evening that spoke forcefully of the high standards of musicianship which both halves of the new partnership represent.

Glyn Pursglove