United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (2) – 20th Century Classics. Synergy Vocals, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.8.2013 (SRT)
Amériques (1927 version)
This intelligent piece of programme planning juxtaposed the most significant work of two composers who challenged our very concept of what can be understood as music. I wonder, though, if it was a good idea to partition it all off as one concert rather than sharing them with more popular repertoire? Inevitably it meant that the audience was very thin on the ground, and that’s hardly encouraging for the players who had laboured so hard on these difficult works. Anyway, Varèse’s mighty Amériques, composed after his move to New York and inspired by the idea of discovery as a whole, not just that of the New World, seeks to capture a whole universe in sound, and it is, in fact, about sound as much as it is about music. Varèse was captivated by the sounds of the New York streets and waterways and famously included the siren in his gigantic orchestra. It’s his most famous work, and probably his most significant in the way it seeks to conjure up the might and power of the city in its soundscape, using every means at a composer’s disposal and many that hadn’t been used before. The sound of Amériques sometimes seems to go beyond what we understand as music, the pulverising climaxes seeming to rise out of the score like skyscrapers from the city streets, and the components of the sound world – such as the alto flute or the toneless twanging at the bottom of the harps – mean as much as the overall product itself. It’s a work where the excitement of discovery is always fresh, at times savage, sometimes violent, always arresting, often bewildering.
It requires an enormous orchestra who can play like virtuosi, led by a conductor of phenomenal skill and direction. Luckily, we had both tonight. Ilan Volkov has had many years of working with the BBCSSO, and it is only after building up a considerable level of trust that an orchestra and its conductor could even have begun to think about performing this piece. His baton emphasised the beat more predominantly than usual – presumably because he had to! – but he didn’t sacrifice dynamic variation, and he wasn’t afraid of the shattering climaxes that punctuate the work so regularly. The orchestra, too, played this music like a crack team, and the smaller band who began the concert with Intégrales showed just as much character, be it in the skirling clarinets or the harrumphing brass who tried to start up a march theme but got blown off course by the ensuing sweep of the piece.
Berio’s Sinfonia, composed in 1968, also tries to redefine our perception of music, but in a very different manner to Varèse. Most famously, the third movement is a pastiche of the Scherzo from Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, peppered with myriad quotations from other composers ranging from Berlioz to Boulez. It’s Berio’s attempt to re-contextualise and give new meaning to our understanding of the western musical tradition and it works brilliantly, Volkov’s reading of the piece balancing its tight structure with a twinge of the anarchic. It’s the contribution of the vocalists that stands out too, though, sometimes singing, sometimes speaking, sometimes using words and at other times not. Synergy Vocals made some astounding sounds tonight, sometimes magical, sometimes spooky, but always interesting and inventive -in the last line of the third movement thanking the conductor by name, a nice touch. The electronic aspects of the piece were generally well integrated with the acoustic, though an irritating crackle invaded the speakers in the second movement. Perhaps the most telling moment, however, which made me think further about what Berio was trying to do, came during the break between the fourth and fifth movements when the mobile phone of an audience member exploded into a blues riff. Volkov didn’t seem to mind – in fact, he seemed to enjoy it – and I wouldn’t be surprised if various members of the audience thought that it was part of the piece. I suspect Berio himself would have been pleased at that thought.