Valiant Attempt to Promote Contemporary Welsh Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Welsh Showcase: Chloë Hanslip (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Grant Llewellyn (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 23.11.2012 (PCG)

Mark David Boden: Fuochi distant (2010)
Andrew Lewis: Eclipse (1996, revised 2011)
Huw Watkins: Concertino (2011)
Arlene Sierra: Moler (2012)
Guto Puw: Hologram (2009)
Joseph Davies: Byzantium: triptych for orchestra (2012)
Mark Bowden: tirlun (2008)

Promoters who put on concerts of new music inevitably find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand they can insert a new piece into a concert of more or less popular classical music, in which case an audience indifferent if not positively hostile to modern ‘noises’ may either stay away altogether or listen with total incomprehension; the reaction of the mass media to the première of Birtwistle’s Panic at the Last Night of the Proms is probably the most extreme example of this. On the other hand they can present a whole programme of new music to an inevitably small audience consisting mostly of students and musical professionals, which will have little chance of emerging from the ghetto into which it has been placed. Here the hall was less than a quarter full.

This Welsh Showcase was nevertheless a valiant attempt to take the second option but to extend the outreach to a wider audience – and one is pleased to note that the concert was recorded for future broadcast. In this context however it is vital that every possible step should be taken to facilitate the understanding of the music by the listener. A good example was set earlier this year by the Welsh Composers’ Workshop held by the BBC, again in Hoddinott Hall. The audience were provided with complete biographical details, notes on the music by the composers, and (most valuable of all) copies of the scores. The last enables the listener, even if they do not read music that well, to actually see what the composer intended and to judge the music not only by the performance that is presented to them. In the workshop there were inevitably errors and mistakes by the orchestra, but it was also possible to see instances where the demands of the composer were either impractical or totally impossible (this may say something about the unsatisfactory manner in which the scores were selected, but at least it absolves the performers from blame). One of the works performed in this concert, an extract from Byzantium by Joseph Davies, was partly given in the workshop and this is therefore the only piece under review for which I have seen the score. It was one of the best pieces to emerge from the workshop, and one was grateful for the chance to hear the complete work, here receiving its world première.

The concert began with another world première, Fuochi distant by Mark David Boden (born 1968). This takes the form of a nocturne describing an Italian night punctuated by the explosion of distant fireworks. The idea, of a quiet dusk interrupted by far-off revelry, might have suggested Ives’s Central Park in the Dark, but the total effect was quite different. The opening whispers of insect-like percussion led to a blending of textures which recalled in some ways the Klangfarbenmelodie of Schoenberg, although the high woodwind and brass were more prominent than might have been desirable. The piece almost had the atmosphere of film music (which is not meant in a pejorative sense) and had a real sense of place. The eruption of the distant fireworks formed relatively short interruptions to the idyll, which at one point evoked Respighi’s nocturne in The Pines of Rome with a clarinet solo over softly trilling violins although the clarinet was somewhat shriller than with Respighi. The work was possibly a bit too long for its content – the third set of distant fireworks seemed one too many – but the work was grateful on the ear.

That unfortunately could not be said of the second piece on the programme, Eclipse by Andrew Lewis (born 1963). This work had been composed in 1996 and given a first performance in 2004; we were told that it had been revised and shortened in 2012. The process of abridgement may have accounted for the somewhat bitty impression given by the music. We were told that the music was constructed around a melody which was subjected to changes of “colour, shapes, light and texture,” but the melody itself was not clearly distinguishable and instead we had clusters of unrelated notes and textures, the relationship of which one to another was not immediately apparent. There were scraps of Messiaen-like birdsong on the woodwind contrasted with stentorian eruptions from the brass, and at one point the high held trumpet note interrupted by crashing chords from the full orchestra evoked Mahler’s Tenth Symphony; but what these presumably intentional references were meant to convey was not clear. Lewis was the oldest composer featured in this programme, and his music sounded strangely rather more old-fashioned than the rest.

The first half of the concert restored calm with the Concertino for violin and strings by Huw Watkins (born 1976). Not that this was immediately apparent from the busy opening (think of Hindemith crossed with Stravinsky), which was sprightly although less excitable than Watkins’s earlier Violin Concerto given at the Proms a few years ago. The adventurous and confident Chloë Hanslip managed to breathe lyricism into her smooth lines before the violent opening figurations returned, but the orchestra sounded more stressed by the busy writing that she did. The music blossomed nicely into an effulgently romantic final section (the work is in four connected movements), a prolonged and very beautiful rendition which ended in an offbeat and unexpected manner.

The American composer Arlene Sierra (born 1970) is Welsh by adoption, currently holding a teaching post in Cardiff, and her Moler, here receiving its UK première, was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra who gave the first performance last month. Moler means “teeth-grinding” but there was no suspicion of that in the music; in fact there was quite a perky rhythmic pulse, which kept the vulgarly flutter-tonguing brass strictly under control. There was even a suspicion of ‘light music’ – think late Bernstein – in the bouncy juxtaposition of rhythms.

The next work on the programme was Hologram by Guto Puw (born 1971). This work is an experiment in changing tone colours, and the slow pace of the music enabled one to appreciate the subtly shifting orchestral timbres; but it failed to hold the attention for its full duration of fifteen minutes or so. As in the earlier Andrew Lewis piece, there were again hints of Messiaen and Mahler; there was more sheer incident than in Eclipse, but otherwise one had the feeling of treading much the same ground. At one point the exchange of a single note between one section of the orchestra and another almost sounded like an orchestra tuning up, only not so eventful.

The first performance of the complete trilogy Byzantium by Joseph Davies (born 1987) was certainly the highlight of the programme, and it was also the longest piece presented here. The three movements, based on sections of Yeats’s poem, are entitled Night resonance recedes, Miracle bird or golden handiwork, and The gong-tormented sea. It sounded as though Davies had made some revisions to the first movement since its performance earlier this year, and the woodwind and brass were now more prominent, although I missed the more impressionistically atmospheric sound that the strings had conjured in the earlier performance. It is clear that Davies loves the sound of the orchestra, and the climaxes in the later movements had the overwhelming power that one associates with Shostakovich or Prokofiev. There were also some good tunes, and the work did not seem a moment too long. Some minor criticisms: the writing for the trumpet in the second movement was cruelly high, and one had an uneasy sense that the player was not necessarily playing all the right notes (in the absence of a score one could not tell); and the rapid oscillation for the flute in the opening bars between normally produced notes and harmonics sounded uncomfortable, as if the instrument were drifting in and out of tune – one can see what the composer is getting at, but the result is unsettling rather than nocturnal. Nevertheless Davies was the youngest composer represented on the programme, and one looks forward with keen anticipation to his future development. Davies said that he only recognised the affinities to Yeats after he had written the music; if that is literally true, then he has a truly original aural imagination.

The final work on the programme by Mark Bowden (born 1979) suffered somewhat from audience fatigue at the end of quite a long evening of unfamiliar music. It was entitled tirlun and like Byzantium was based on a poem, in this case a landscape poem by T H Parry-Williams. The poet was no e e cummings, eschewing the use of capital letters, so the use of lower case in the title seemed rather pointless (and was not explained by the otherwise informative programme notes by Peter Reynolds). The Welsh landscape which was evoked contrasted the stillness of nature with the busy-ness of industry, and was founded on a solid bedrock of musical material. It was interesting to note that (apart from the Huw Watkins piece for strings only) this was the only piece which made minimal use of percussion, with only one player apart from the timpanist. The woodwind produced a charming ‘squeeze-box’ effect at one point, and fragments of themes which were tossed about by the orchestra produced a kaleidoscopic effect which suggested Ives. However in this performance the ending was not quite ethereal enough. This might well have suggested tiredness by the players at the end of a long and obviously very exhausting programme. Otherwise the unflustered and indefatigable Grant Llewellyn and the orchestra did the music proud.

All the composers were present to receive the applause of the small but appreciative audience, and the opportunity was taken to present a short interview with each of them by Gareth Glyn. Given the circumstances, it was perhaps somewhat invidious that we were not given any music by Glyn, who is himself a composer of some note. Indeed this ‘Welsh Panorama’ restricted itself entirely to composers born after 1963, and it might have been interesting to have heard some music by writers of the older generation, such as Peter Reynolds who had selflessly written the programme notes for all the other composers. Perhaps something to bear in mind for future occasions of a similar type, of which I hope there will be many.

The whole concert was recorded by the BBC for future broadcast, and I would urge all those who are not unsympathetic to modern music to make a point of listening to it. The Joseph Davies piece will be found extremely rewarding, and the other pieces will certainly be of interest.

Paul Corfield Godfrey