English Pastoralism in Qigang Chen Work

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Currier, Bowden, Chen:Julian Warburton (percussion), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Richard Baker (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 15.5.2013 (PCG)

Sebastian Currier: Microsymph
Mark Bowden:  Heartland Percussion Concerto
Sebastian Currier:  Quanta
Qigang Chen:  Enchantements oubliés

This concert, part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, opened with the Microsymph by Sebastian Currier, a work described by the composer as “a large-scale symphony that has been squeezed into only ten minutes.” It may be small in scale, but it uses a full-sized romantic symphony orchestra with triple woodwind and extends to five independent movements. The work, receiving its UK première here with the composer in attendance, opens with a brief first movement which establishes some recognisable patterns. The second movement has the feel of a sleazy waltz, as if Gershwin were reflected through an Ivesian mirror, and was even shorter. The more substantial third movement opened with a neo-classical gesture reminiscent of Hindemith, but then relaxed into a beautiful meditation with a chilly air which was interrupted by violent outbursts from the brass. The contrasts continued to develop, but really needed more room to expand, and the individual episodes only finally achieved coherence at the end of the movement. The following scherzo, with its prominent xylophone solo, sounded uncannily like a similar passage in Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony; and the similarly frenetic finale made much use of tuned percussion and jazzy woodwind, producing a rousing conclusion to a basically light-hearted piece (with reminiscences of material from earlier movements) even though it tailed off to a rather inconclusive ending.

This was followed by the première of Mark Bowden’s Heartland, a percussion concerto which again employed the full resources of the orchestra, although the orchestral percussion required much platform re-arrangement before the performance could begin. At the beginning both orchestral percussions played trios on the maracas together with the soloist at the front of the stage, but the problem is that the sound of the maracas does not necessarily stop when the player does! Then the inevitable xylorimba solo for the soloist reduced the orchestra to a merely accompanying role of sustained chords and percussive interjections, and there was a real lack of any thematic memorability (or even any recognisable themes). The use of hard and soft sticks on the same bass drum built to a climax before the maracas returned; but by this stage one had the distinct impression of colour without substance, a sense of a series of sonic experiments rather than a unified work.

The second movement introduced the aluphone, described by the composer as “a new development in tuned percussion featuring hand-moulded aluminium bells.” It was an interesting sound, rather like Mahler’s cow-bells elevated to a separate unit as a sort of super-glockenspiel which may well indeed have a future in concert works despite its bulking size (which required a lot of athleticism from the performer) and inelegant appearance. Here the use of sustained high-pitched piccolo notes in the accompaniment was as unpleasant as it always is; you really can’t play these high notes comfortably despite Schoenberg’s experiments in the final movement of Gürrelieder. Indeed throughout one felt rather sorry for the orchestra who were given nothing very substantial to do until a rather inelegant fugal passage towards the end which was largely drowned out by the percussion figurations. As a percussion concerto Heartland provided plenty of meat for the soloist to show off, but the musical rewards fell short of such works as the more theatrically effective concertos by MacMillan or Schwantner, and it went on too long for its content.

After the interval we had the European première of Currier’s Quanta, a rather odd work which strung together sections of isolated fragments of two bars’ length separated by one bar rests (although the conductor appeared to considerably abbreviate the latter at times). The composer explained in his programme note that he aimed to create “a sonic analogue to a set of Chinese characters” which would start to take on “a larger, less fragmented form.” This evolution was quite a long time in coming, although in the individual fragments one recognised hints of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Ravel and even Britten’s Spring Symphony, but the impressions were gone as soon as they appeared, and one felt that the unified result would never arrive. Then finally the fragments began to cohere, although even then the constant interruptions to the flow of the music remained irritating. But the orchestra played superbly, and seemed to enjoy being given something more substantial to do that in the Bowden concerto.

The final work on the programme, Enchantments oubliés by Qigang Chen, was commissioned by Kurt Masur in 2004 although it was not performed until 2008. The composer stated in his notes that he wished the music to reflect nature and the “essence of beauty”, and the piece opened with a Vaughan Williams-like viola solo (close cousin to its parallel in the second movement of the London Symphony) which led to similarly beautiful solos for violin and cello. The rhapsodic nature of the music precluded any obvious sense of form, but the unconstrained freedom had a natural shape of its own as the composer intended. This is the sort of music that Classic FM listeners would love (if they ever got a chance to hear it) and the modernists would correspondingly hate. After a while the orchestra launched into a dance-like section with more prominent contributions from the tuned percussion (there are no wind instruments in the score). But the feeling of what one might call ‘English pastoralism’ remained even when the rhythms were at their most rambunctious, with the dance melodies played by the harp and an electrifying timpani solo. The return of the opening material was truly luscious, and one expected the work to wind down to a tranquil conclusion. But instead the dance material returned, blending with the slow melodic lines in a manner which recalled Barber’s First Essay for orchestra, although the balance in the resonant Hoddinott Hall allowed the percussion on occasion to overwhelm the strings. We then went through the slow – fast cycle again, with the percussion taking over the slow melodic lines over the string dance rhythms. The final long-awaited lyrical conclusion seemed to go on a long time, but then it is the essence of nature not to be hurried.

Richard Baker was a committed and vigorous conductor throughout, and got a good response from his players. One would look forward to hearing in particular the Chen work again; someone ought to record it, as it has the potential for commercial success.

Paul Corfield Godfrey