Stimulating Concert Highlights New Work by Welsh Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Timothy Wilson, Gareth Glyn, Yat Soul Zisso, Michael Parkin: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 4.3.2013. (PCG)

Timothy Wilson: Twisting motion
Gareth Glyn: In memoriam cruciatorum infantum
Yfat Soul Zisso: From the darkness
Michael Parkin: Still life

When Beecham first conducted Elektra at Covent Garden, he was assailed by a member of the audience who told him that he was going home to play the chord of C major on the piano to assure himself that it still existed. Beecham countered that Strauss’s score actually finished with that selfsame chord, but it was a distinct surprise in the present day to find that in this concert of new Welsh music we actually heard a chord of C major delivered pppby the full orchestra to conclude one of the pieces.

That piece was Gareth Glyn’s In memoriam cruciatorum infantum. The title means “In memory of tortured children” and is a reflection on the theme of physically abused children whose sufferings are only terminated by death. Given the nature of the subject matter, the work inevitably began with a series of vehemently rhythmic and dissonantly barbaric eruptions from the orchestra which only gradually gave way to a rhapsodic lamentation with solo violin which finally concluded with the aforementioned C major chord. Indeed such is the degree of contrast that the work almost gave the impression of two completely different pieces; it might have conveyed a more unified effect if there had been some music of innocence before the abuse began instead of plunging the listener into the midst of the action.

Timothy Wilson’s Twisting motion, which had begun the programme, again featured a solo violin in its closing pages, and also mirrored the influence of the final movement of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem – as did Glyn’s lament – before settling down at the end in an only slightly disturbed E-flat. It made plentiful use of the metallic sound of strings playing sul ponticello, but the very stratospheric writing for the piccolo made for a rather shrill impression in places. However it was a highly effective piece which one would be grateful to hear again. Possibly because it was the opening piece in the concert, there were a couple of orchestral slips in the performance – which had gone fwell in rehearsal the same afternoon.

Michael Parkin’s Still life similarly showed an obsessive use of strings sul ponticello and high piccolo writing – maybe it is the flavour of the month – but the principal orchestral role seemed to be assumed by the bass trombone, blaring out pedal notes with persistence and also making plentiful use of both glissando and fluttertongue. In fact, the player made use of a Wagnerian double-bass trombone, which it had been discovered in rehearsal was more satisfactory in delivering the extremely low pedal notes. Berlioz, the first composer to make orchestral use of these sounds, has much to answer for. The rhythms in the closing section, with constant changes of metre which recalled the end of The Rite of Spring, were rendered even more complex by the extensive use of syncopation which clearly stretched the technique of the orchestra to the limit. Oddly enough there was only one tempo indication for the piece, Relentlessly cold, although there was plenty of variety of pace. Apparently the work began its existence scored for an ensemble of ten players, and there was some evidence of this in the solo piano solo which suddenly entered about halfway through, as well as the extensive writing for solo strings and a sinuously Arabic-sounding piccolo theme. This was also reflected in the scoring itself, with no double bassoon, harp or timpani, the latter being substituted by an over-insistent use of a set of tom-toms. In consequence the piece did not give the impression of having being fully integrated into its new guise for full orchestra.

The other piece on the programme, From the darkness by Yat Soul Zisso, stood rather apart from the rest of the works here. It was, we were told, the composer’s first attempt at an orchestral score, and it sounded very much like a student effort. By comparison with the other works it was very short (57 bars lasting some four minutes, as opposed to some twelve minutes for the 256 bars of Still life), and there was not much incident here either. Indeed the work hardly seemed to have got itself going before it finished, with only a short passage just before the end employing the full strength of a symphony orchestra. Otherwise it placed much emphasis on sustained string chords with no extensive use of the figuration or texture found elsewhere in this programme.

This concert formed part of an annual series designed to highlight the work of Welsh composers, who are asked to enter pieces which are selected for workshop sessions before the chosen items are rehearsed and performed. It is odd to find such a well-established composer as Gareth Glyn having to enter his music into such a competition, since his In memoriam seemed to be the sort of work that the BBC should be scheduling for performance in any event. I was not able to attend the workshops on the previous day and am therefore unable to comment on why two scores from those sessions were not selected for the concert, although it seems that rehearsal time may have been limited. Last year’s workshops, which I had attended, had been a rather mixed bag. One of the scores then had asked the orchestra to speak and chant during the music – the rules had been amended this year to bar such experiments – and one other composer (who shall be nameless) had not only submitted untransposed orchestral parts, but had then failed for some considerable time to notice the sheaves of wrong notes which resulted. There appear to have been no such incidents this year, and indeed the scores by Parkin, Glyn and Wilson all displayed a high degree of professionalism and aptitude for orchestral writing. Roll on next year.

Paul Corfield Godfrey