Parkin and Jones Stand Out at Welsh Composers’ Workshop

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Moorcraft, Parkin, Lewis, Howell, Jones, Welsh Composers’ Workshop: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 25.3.2014 (PCG)

Gareth Moorcraft – Dreamscape
Michael Parkin – Srebenica
Luke Lewis – over us the shining rafters
Julia Howell –  Artefacts: 1st movement
James Jones – Irrational exuberance

 This concert formed the culmination of a series of workshops beginning as far back as the beginning of February, during which seven works were rehearsed and refined with the participation of the orchestra and two composers associated with them, Simon Holt and Mark Bowden. Two of the original works were not selected for representation in the concert, largely because practical difficulties with some of their demands would have demanded more rehearsal time than was available. I therefore restrict my comments to the five works finally given, and my review will take account not only of the concert itself but of the twelve hours of workshop time which had preceded it.

 It might be unfair to judge the piece by Julia Howell, a postgraduate student at Cardiff University, on the basis of a single movement which was clearly intended to lead to other things. But what we heard here, with its insistent A major chords surrounded by a halo of glissandi and occasional extraneous notes, sounded like the Prelude to Lohengrin experienced in a drug-fuelled haze, and her instruction to the trombones at one point to play a single note cuivré betrayed a lack of knowledge both of the basic practical mechanics of the instrument and human anatomy, which was disturbing. This impractical demand persisted from the original score as heard on 2 February right through to the final revised version, and was simply ignored by the players. The composer claimed in her introductory talk that fragments of melody eventually emerged, but they seemed to take far too long to do so; although it is fair to add that Simon Holt commented that the results were beautiful.

 Another piece which was heard only in excerpt in the original workshop was Luke Lewis’s over us the shifting rafters – the use of lower case throughout the title yet another example of this annoying habit which had nothing to do with the poetry of R S Thomas on which the piece was based, and which was quoted in the programme note with normal punctuation. This was a pointillistic score, and the last movement was only added during the workshop process. This involved the dubious addition to the score of a page distractingly marked “intentionally blank” but didn’t actually add much to the substance of the whole, with recapitulation of existing material (and literally repeated passages). Again one noted a demand which was ignored by the players – in this case for the trumpets to play with their instruments raised in the air. The work was intended to have a political message, or so we were told, but this remained obscure.

Gareth Moore’s Dreamscape, on the other hand, was highly proficient, but the composer actually created problems with his doubling of wind and string lines which served to reinforce the tone but sounded rather odd in their context. The bass clarinet part in the opening bars seemed to lie below the normally recognised range of the instrument, but the player managed to supply the relevant notes. Amendments to the score during the workshops were not immediately obvious, although these occasioned problems when the revised percussion parts did not correspond with the score.

I very much enjoyed James Jones’s Irrational exuberance, a light-hearted piece about his problems in obtaining a mortgage which – amazingly for a modern work! – actually boasted a key signature. The writing had a positively Waltonian vehemence, and some of the scoring even recollected the unfinished sketches which that composer had left for his Third Symphony. Here the political point the writer was trying to make was, unlike the piece by Luke Lewis, immediately perceptible. In his introduction the composer spoke of a “bitterness” in the music, but the effect was more sardonic spiced with Waltonian malice. It appeared that some additional percussion including tuned cowbells (confusingly described at the head of the score as “alto metallophone”) had been added during the workshops, with brought a sense of even greater mayhem to the music. This is an orchestral showpiece which we really should hear again.

Finally we come to yet another politically inspired piece, Michael Parkin’s heartfelt Srebenica. As last year with Gareth Glyn, one is surprised that a well-established composer should feel the necessity to submit a score to a workshop competition of this sort – surely this is the sort of work that the BBC should be scheduling as part of its main programme. Parkin is an experienced composer, and his piece packed a real emotional punch of the sort that eluded his less experienced colleagues; and indeed Srebenica was a far more effective work than his Still life included in last year’s programme. Parkin gracefully accepted the suggestion by Jac van Steen (whose conducting – like the orchestral playing – was always responsive and sympathetic as well as displaying great virtuosity where required) that the piece would benefit from a greater sense of movement as it moved towards its excoriating climax; one wished, for example, that Julia Howell had accepted the same advice.

In Srebenica it was also a delight to hear for once in this programme the strings being given their full head in solidly rich cantilena; for far too much of the time in the other pieces they were simply restricted to colouristic effects, with a plentiful use of artificial harmonics which with the best will in the world were sometimes hit-and-miss affairs, although by the time of the concert they sounded more secure than they had at the beginning of the workshop process. One should not fail to mention the superb playing of Göran Fröst in the solo viola lament during Srebenica, with its clear overtones of Vaughan Williams’s Flos campi.

But the main problem with many of the scores in the workshops was the feeling that the younger composers were experimenting with effects for their own sake, without making use of the wider range of sounds that an orchestra can legitimately supply. This has indeed been a problem with many of the selected scores over the last three years during which I have been attending these events, where the selection has appeared to focus on experiment rather than more traditionally based orchestral techniques. The results, although sometimes fascinating, have also sometimes bordered on the bizarre. What we really need is to hear more works of the calibre of the Parkin piece included in the programmes, if indeed this is the only way in which we are going to be able to encounter this superlative music.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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