Eight Premieres Show English Music in Excellent Health

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Blackford, Lane, Wright, Carr, Lewis, Palmer, David Matthews, Norris: Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Orchestra of St Paul’s / Ben Palmer (conductor), English Music Festival, Dorchester Abbey, 27.5.2013 (RJ)

Richard Blackford: Spirited Philip Lane: Aubade Joyeuse Christopher Wright: Legend Paul Carr: And suddenly it’s evening Paul Lewis: Norfolk Suite Ben Palmer: Sinfonietta David Matthews: White Nights David Owen Norris: Symphony Put on a concert of new music these days and you can expect to attract a thin audience – a devoted few plus the family and friends of the composer. (How different things were in Beethoven’s time!) It is a measure of how far the English Music Festival has progressed in its seven years that the organisers should feel sufficiently confident to put on a concert consisting entirely of new commissions – eight in all – and expect to pull in a capacity crowd (which they did).

The first composer, Richard Blackford, wanted to epitomise the EMF and its founder/director Em Marshall-Luck choosing the title Spirited for his contribution. It did everything an overture should, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation with its alternating 6/8 and 5/4 beginning. Later the tempo was halved and the main theme appeared as a horn solo which was later taken up by the violins. A heroic trumpet theme accompanied by dancing violin figures added an aspirational touch.

Philip Lane’s Aubade Joyeuse is not absolutely brand new having already appeared in brass band and wind band versions. It was indeed a joyous work with a dance-like rhythm which started on the woodwind and then spread to the whole orchestra. As the sun rose, excitement grew and the music worked itself up to a grand conclusion.

Benjamin Britten is not the only composer to be inspired by the scenery of Suffolk. In Legend Christopher Wright has written an atmospheric piece depicting the coastal hamlet of Shingle Street – a bleak, desolate place which is believed to conceal some sinister secret. The music conveyed an air of mystery and darkness with its slowly shifting harmonies. A dissonant outburst by the brass threatened to reveal the secret, but it was over in a trice and the brooding atmosphere returned.

Violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck has played a prominent role in the English Musical Festival this weekend and it was very fitting that he should surface again in the final concert – in And Suddenly It’s Evening, Paul Carr’s nocturne for violin and orchestra. Inspired by The Lark Ascending the composer has aimed at simplicity creating a lush, slightly old-fashioned work which starts out of nowhere and rises to a passionate climax. The sincerity and lyricism of Marshall-Luck’s playing was especially appealing.

There was another visit to East Anglia in Paul Lewis’s Norfolk Suite for strings, but there was no lonely brooding landscape here but scenes involving people and activity. Castle Rising evoked images of Norman knights going about their business while Wymondham Abbey conjured up the ghosts of monks processing around the building in times gone by. Ramworth Broad was less the depiction of a landscape than the notalgic evocation of holidays on the broads; and the four movement work concluded in the present with the bustling soundscape of Norwich Market.

Sinfonietta by tonight’s conductor, Ben Palmer, ended the first half of the concert. Palmer had told a symposium that he had given up composing to concentrate on conducting and had only recently started to put pen to paper again. On the evidence he has much to offer: the music developed from a three note fanfare and an answering two part phrase and ended triumphantly with the brass imitating a joyful peal of bells.

Earlier in the afternoon David Matthews lamented how difficult it is to get a new composition performed. White Nights op 26 exemplifies the problem: first composed 33 years ago it was having its first performance this evening. But it was well worth the wait. It was inspired by Robert Bresson’s film Four Nights of a Dreamer based on a novella by Dostoevsky about a young man who comes across a woman in tears. He falls in love with her but at a subsequent meeting learns that she is awaiting the return of her betrothed. In the composition the violin, played with passion by Rupert Marshall-Luck, represents the dreamer, the flute the young woman and the clarinet the other man in her life. This proved to be a powerful, haunting work strong on atmosphere and anguish – in which the violin eventually took up the themes of the other two instruments; and after a frenzied outburst the piece drew to a quiet close.

The most substantial work of the evening (forty minutes) was the four movement Symphony by pianist, broadcaster and raconteur David Owen Norris who was also celebrating his 60th birthday. Each movement respresents one of the Four Elements – Air, Fire, Water and Earth and he draws on a variety of sources from the Beach Boys to Watkin’s Ale. A piccolo motif is the starting point of the work which undergoes various transformations emerging as a syncopated melody which threatens to take over at one stage. Generally speaking, the latter two linked movements were the most successful: the Adagio representing Water was characterised by musical inversions and created a sense of stillness; the Ground finale was a splendid passacaglia based on Watkin’s Ale evoking a bucolic pastoral scene such as one might have come across in Dorchester in centuries past.

Well done English Music Festival for sticking to its guns and promoting the music of these islands in such a wholehearted manner. Eight new commissions in one concert must be a record for the 21st Century. Especial praise is due to Ben Palmer and the Orchestra of St Paul’s who had to get to grips with so many new compositions for one concert; they deserve top marks for concentration, commitment and courage alone. However they also imparted such sparkle to the music that the audience could not help being impressed by their enthusiasm and musicianship.

For more information on the English Music Festival see www.englishmusicfestival.co.uk.

Roger Jones