A Wide Range of New Works in Nine Hour Marathon

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Atmospheres New Music Festival. Various performers (detailed in review). Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 13.5.2014 (PCG)


The programme for this Atmospheres one-day festival, held at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama as part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, was so fluid that prior information regarding what exactly listeners could expect to hear, and when, was almost impossible to come by. The Vale of Glamorgan advance publicity listed the event, referring prospective audiences to contact the College for details; but the Festival programme book gave no information whatsoever, although as usual there were marvellously comprehensive notes and biographies on everything else. For future events the College really needs to determine in advance what paying audiences should expect to hear, and the composers featured need to prepare information on what is being presented. As it was, details of the individual programmes were only provided at the door of the various events (and not always even then). Members of the enterprising Vale of Glamorgan Festival audiences might well have been very interested in some of the items presented, if they had been given the opportunity to find out in more detail what these were.

I attended six events during the day during a period of nine hours, and the major score was undoubtedly the première of Ben Lunn’s one-hour oratorio Bhava based on texts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and various mantras. The composer’s development over the last three years has been most interesting, moving from an exploratory style involving many avant garde techniques to his (as yet unperformed) setting for male choir of the mediaeval text Kepe then the sea in a purely modal style, which was completed this year and deserves to be taken up enthusiastically by Welsh male choirs. Bhava, in four movements, has its avant garde moments, but they are well integrated into the formal structure of a score which might otherwise be regarded as dangerously fragmentary. The opening purely instrumental movement was described in the programme as “the lily growing in the murky water before we blossom into the light” – the lengthy pauses between phrases (not as long sometimes as marked in the score) slowly coalesced into a series of shattering climaxes. The second movement introduced two interesting and unusual devices, and the effect of playing inside the piano with wire brushes was most effective; but the use of a violin bow on the strings of the harp (yes, it can be done!) failed to come across with sufficient volume to be heard against the battering accompaniment of bassoon, trombone, cellos and basses. In this movement the twelve voices of the choir did not always manage to clearly define the melismatic passages in their lines, but coped valiantly with the extreme range rising to some confidently delivered high Cs. Texts were provided in the programme notes, which were sometimes needed although the words in the unison declamatory passages came over loud and clear. The third movement blended the various mantras into a blur of sound which sometimes recalled Ligeti, but the final movement for voices alone caused some problems for the singers which the last-minute insertion of a piano accompaniment did not entirely resolve; when the two groups of sopranos had pairs of lines, one moving chromatically downwards and the other upwards in whole tones towards a unison note, there was a distinct sense of unease as to whether the unison would actually be achieved. I would imagine the singers might have been tired at the end of a long evening, although I also noted a number of glitches in the orchestral performance (the composer had been kind enough to provide me with a copy of the score in advance, although his conducting seemed in places to be faster than his indicated metronome markings). However I would welcome the opportunity to hear a most interesting score again – possibly in a recording made under studio conditions?

One of Ben Lunn’s scores had been included last year in a workshop conducted at the College by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, where the distinguished elderly musical statesman had rather unkindly described his vocal style as being ‘recitative’ rather than ‘aria’. Birtwistle had been even more scathing about an aria by David Harrington which he thought came from a ‘musical’ rather than an ‘opera’ – but the composer certainly seemed to have taken this criticism with a pinch of well-deserved salt if his one-act opera The pin drops was anything to go by. The plot concerned an ageing operatic diva indulging herself in a series of nicely and affectionately guyed parodies of hit numbers from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. But the singer is more than just a Norma Jean Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, since she has a lively taste for cannibalism and evisceration which she shared enthusiastically with the audience. The hilariously tasteless plot, with language that out-Turnaged Greek and out-Jonesed Jerry Springer, was nevertheless unroarious fun which was thoroughly enjoyed by the audience and by Katrina Nimmo giving a superlatively over-the-top performance as Daphne, with the composer himself as her brute of a husband (and her first victim). This is another score which I would be delighted to hear again.

Lewis Furber provided the other half of an operatic double bill with The man, the corpse and the soldier, a much more serious work – although, since it followed the Harrington without an interval, it took the audience some time to realise this. Lei Roberts as the man who, having killed his lover, descends into madness and finally falls victim to a homophobic soldier, gave a stunningly dramatic performance with a degree of involvement that made one fear for the survival of his voice; but although the opera was a tour de force as far as the libretto was concerned, the purely musical element (apart from a recurrent series of variations on the old Welsh air Ar hyd yr nos [All through the night] and quotations from Mozart and Leoncavallo) was rather thin on the ground, consisting largely of emphatic gestures to underline the unpleasantness of the plot. Conal Benbridge-Sayers was rather too civilised to be altogether convincing as the thug of a soldier; David Harrington was a remarkably lively corpse of the dead lover, moving about between the series of short scenes in a manner that brought giggles from the audience. One would have welcomed some orchestral interludes between these scenes (the ensemble under Jack Lovell was rather larger than the piano quintet employed by Harrington) which might have served to meditate and mediate on the issues raised, in the same way as Berg manages in the final Act of Wozzeck.

 An orchestral and chamber concert featured the music of Christopher Bond and James Galborn. Bond’s Islands in the sky, for euphonium quartet, had a rather shaky opening with vibrato very much in evidence, but took off like a rocket; the second movement again suffered from some unsteady tone, notably in the sustained pedal notes at the end. The second movement of the trombone concerto Nexus sounded rather more modern in style but rose to a melodic climax well sustained by Stephen Sykes. The breath of sleeping boys for baritone and percussion ensemble set a poem by Paul Henry (not credited in the programme) in a confident vocal line, but the tenorish-sounding Roland Harrad had some difficulties in the lower register where he failed to project the text with sufficient clarity to overcome the lack of words in the programme. Imagine! for orchestra and spoken voices was written as the accompaniment to a projected fireworks display at Land’s End this forthcoming summer, and returned us to the more immediately approachable style of Islands in the sky. The scoring certainly should carry over the sound of exploding rockets, and the shadow of John Williams film scores lies heavy on the music. Sam Jowett’s athleticism as he sprinted from one side of the percussion section to the other added an impressive theatrical element to the proceedings. The ‘soundtrack’ accompanied the recorded voice of Miriam Margolyes telling a bowdlerised version of Arthurian legend to a pair of importunate children (Morgan Baulch and Kia Roberts), and the percussion-dominated conclusion led one to the impression that she had understandably yielded to the temptation to shoot them both. It should go down a bomb with the tourists this summer.

James Galborn’s Syncopation for brass quintet consisted of a series of brief contrasting sections, a light-hearted piece distinguished by some scintillating playing. However Cardiff to Conway, for string quartet, sounded like the work of a completely different composer, with only the syncopated rhythms having a family resemblance. Depicting a drive up the A470 through mid-Wales, a clue to exactly what was being portrayed in the individual sections described by the composer in his spoken introduction would have been helpful. Nor was the playing ideally tuned; a string orchestra might have been preferable. Erin for flute and piano was much better performed, although again one sensed the lack of a distinctive personal style in the lengthy opening piano section which occupied distinctly Vaughan Williams/Bax territory. After the flute finally entered, the music suddenly took off in a much more animated and percussive manner, and the return of the opening material was very beautiful if rhythmically repetitive. Finally the orchestra played Voyager I, and this again was a work that one would really like to hear again. The work is named after the spacecraft which also featured in the first Star Trek movie, and ‘film score’ elements were evident in the atmospheric depiction of the vastness of interstellar space, with some absolutely shattering climaxes. This was the most effective piece in this programme, and a fitting conclusion to it. The orchestra played exceptionally well.

The programme notes for the orchestral concert had been minimal, but those for Provocation by Sophie Lynch were non-existent, and her spoken introduction was quite inaudible from my seat some ten yards away. The performance, given in the foyer of the College, suffered from an accompaniment of rattling cups and glasses from the café bar next door, and also from the sound of rush hour traffic in the main road outside – including a police siren which anticipated an electronic effect which was part of the score itself. But when four out of the eight performers had their backs to the audience, there was already a real problem of communication; surely this could have been rectified? Better presentation could also have avoided, too, the uneasy feeling that it was hard to distinguish between the music itself and the instruments tuning up. The publicity notes referred to the use of “extreme production techniques” but there was nothing really extreme in what sounded in places very close to jazz improvisation, and an queasy feeling at one point that the players were under imminent attack from sharks and John Williams’s score for Jaws.

 A number of younger composers were featured in an hour-long concert of smaller scale works. Film theme for a love story (for accordion) by Marianna Filippi was pleasant enough, but the composer did not avoid the pulsating effect which can make the instrument sound over-sentimental; and the echo of Michael Nyman’s piano concerto towards the end was distracting. Transmission, an electronic score by Sion Parke Sturrock, featured a persistent rhythm like a manic disco beat, and the deliberate lack of any thematic material made it sound repetitive although it stopped before boredom could set in (although conversely greater length might have helped to establish the idea of the drone more convincingly). No texts or translations were provided for the songs by Kina Miyamoto, which was a mistake since the Japanese words seemed to generate much of the piano response. The composer on the piano was thoroughly virtuosic, and the baritone Adam Jondelius coped valiantly with some difficult writing in From four seasonal haiku. He was given more natural material in From a waka… although in places the violent piano interjections reduced his audibility – and again we would have liked to know what he was singing about (I cannot comment on his command of the language). Air and fire for solo flute by Harriet Grainger was a suite of short pieces, fairly light-weight in manner, played with verve by Dave Harris. Uncollection, an electronic score by Roanna Castle, started so quietly that one would hardly have noticed it had begun. The seven individual movements, manipulating the sounds of various live instruments, hardly began to suggest “the character of the individual instruments” as the programme note claimed; and some of the sudden eruptions, splutters and truncations of movements almost led one to suspect that something had gone wrong even as one admired the clearly considerable effort which had gone into the longest individual work on the programme. Again no texts were provided for Two John Clare Songs by Paul Bigmore and despite the fact that the words were in English they were hardly more comprehensible, although Sarah Maxted floated some high notes deliciously. Unexpectedly these days these settings paid homage to the English pastoral tradition, and Early nightingale started with a long piano introduction where Kina Miyamoto seemed to pause too long between phrases. In the lower tessitura of this song the singer’s diction was clearer. If Scriabin had lived into the jazz era, he might have composed something like the first movement of the Piano Sonata No 1 by Immanuel Voigt which concluded this programme. The work nonetheless had a real sense of form and style in this performance by the composer, although some of the development sounded improvisatory and the movement ended most unexpectedly.

The day’s proceedings had opened with a concert featuring two works by Samuel Barnes. The composer had provided an impenetrably dense programme note for Modes which gave a rather misleading impression of what transpired to be a rather beautiful work, with electronics added to the live performance to provide a gamelan-like background, which demonstrated a welcome willingness to provide some very effective melodic material. There were four movements, although there was no clear distinction between these. Unfortunately at the very end the electronics demonstrated an unwillingness to stop even when the work had reached a conclusion. The use of electronics was much more prominent in Transformations of Nature in Devices (originally a purely electronic work) and the results were less well integrated. But again one welcomed the composer’s ability to provide real themes for the players, who managed with aplomb to encompass the occasional use of avant garde techniques (microtones, bowed cymbals, woodwind chords) that the composer demanded. Even some delicate passages for the piccolo were far removed from the screaming shrillness with which we are sometimes afflicted.

This was a very long day, and one might have welcomed the distribution of these performances over a series of programmes on different days to enable one to approach the music with fresh ears; but there was much to stimulate, much to entertain, and quite a lot to enthral. One was generally most highly impressed with the student performers, and I am sure we will be hearing quite a lot more of some of the composers as well. It was just a pity that the advance publicity did not manage to swell the audiences further beyond the ranks of fellow students, friends and family. The College really needs to exploit the link with the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, and if this means finalising programmes further in advance that would seem to be a price worth paying.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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