Gil Shaham in Bright Sheng’s Violin Concerto 

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dukas, Sheng and Bartók: Gil Shaham (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 09.05.14 (CS)

Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Bright Sheng: Violin Concerto (BBC commission: UK premiere)
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Bright Sheng’s Violin Concerto, composed for Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham, appealingly blends exotic mysticism with folky pentatonic lyricism, and the first UK performance of this BBC co-commission by Shaham with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo was engaging.

The Chinese-born American composer has explained that the three-movement concerto is inspired by a type of traditional folk-singing called ‘flying song’ from Yunan province in China; this was apparently a way for lovers to communicate from mountain to mountain top, and the score undoubtedly evokes a stirring spaciousness, Shaham’s violin singing lusciously and compellingly.

Following the cellos’ opening haunting tremolo duet with the plaintive clarinet, the solo violin embarked upon an increasingly self-propelling, melodic meandering, soaring ever higher (recollections of The Lark Ascending are unavoidable).  Shaham’s tone was astonishingly rich and he projected without force through the full orchestra; but, after a while melodic and rhythmic motifs, and phrases structures felt somewhat repetitive.  Shaham took an obvious delight in the orchestral episodes; and at various times Sheng exploited a range of distinctive instrumental colours: snapping pizzicatos, shimmering cymbal quivers.  But, overall there was little sense of integration between the instrumental forays and the soloist’s contributions.

The percussive climax to the first movement was astonishingly exciting – the bass drum’s volcanic rumblings seemed a fitting preface to a space shuttle launch! – which made the stillness of the following Adagio all the more affecting.  Shaham’s rhapsodizing, punctuated by pizzicati and harp, and enhanced by entwining flute, oboe and clarinet rovings, gave way to a broad statement by the whole orchestra, while the soloist fluttered through improvisatory explorations.   The cadenza once again brought Vaughan Williams to mind, before folky double stops and agile rhythms segued into a brisk Finale, characterised by homely American hoedown and more acerbic Hungarian dances, culminating in a climactic whirling dervish.

Sheng’s work has a pleasing melodicism and the virtuosity demanded of the soloist is hypnotic and persuasive.  Shaham’s fingers certainly flew in fervour and rapture, but the concerto doesn’t quite convince one that it has the complexity of musical argument and variety of material required for a work of this length.

The concert opened with rather restrained performance of Paul Dukas’s vivacious orchestral narrative, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Although the French composer is ever associated in the public’s imagination with Mickey Mouse’s Disney capers, Dukas’s oeuvre includes gems such as the ballet La Péri, and interesting but neglected works such as the Symphony in C and the opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue.  Presenting this perennial favourite, the BBC SO needed to find rather more fantastical grotesquery to hold the attention and to entertain.

The harmonically unstable string opening was appropriately translucent – magic was quietly at work – with complementary harp and flute contributions, before a sudden injection of energy from muted trumpets and horns indicated that the over-confident apprentice was casting his spell.  After an eerie silence, Graham Sheen’s bassoon solo was tartly halting, at times limping lopsidedly, growing ever more perkily nimble; Oramo skilfully shaped the gradual increase of tempo and dynamic – as the brooms learn to carry the buckets of water – with trumpets and piccolo adding an ironic piquancy.

But the various orchestral colours, while meticulously highlighted by Oramo, did not always blend coherently; and dotted rhythms in the strings lacked an incisive bite.  While there were some sharp staccato nips from the trumpets, overall the brass needed more bright punchiness.  The tone poem moved inexorably onwards, gaining power and momentum, without ever quite suggesting hysterical fury and apocalyptic havoc.  It felt as if the orchestra, under guest leader Clio Gould, was somewhat hesitant, holding back.  Dukas classified the work as a ‘Scherzo’, and it needed rather more cheeky insouciance and dazzle.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was deliberately intended to be a ‘crowd-pleaser’, to bridge the gap between the sophisticated ‘new music’ composed during the opening decades of the 20th century and alienated music lovers who found such experiments inaccessible and disenchanting.

The Introduction to the first movement was spacious, cellos and basses an increasingly solemn presence and contrasting with the high string tremolos and flute.  With the commencement of the Allegro Vivace, the violins’ confident articulation of the vigorous syncopated theme, and the tonal opulence of the full orchestra timbre, established a compelling symphonic momentum.

The second movement Allegretto is subtitled, ‘Giuoco delle coppie’, or Game of Pairs; and, ushered in by a bracing side drum, the BBC SO woodwind adopted a fittingly jesting air, teamed at various intervals.  Oramo successfully united the various sections, which included a resonant chorale-like brass episode, judging the ritardandi and rubati well.

Bartók himself called the third movement a ‘lugubrious death-song’ and Richard Simpson’s oboe lament was certainly mournfully elegiac, the unfolding line enhanced by flickering clarinet and flute motifs.  There was a satisfying grandeur about the organic growth towards the climax, balanced by the tenderness of the rhapsodic lyricism.  Flute and oboe were similarly plaintive in the swiftly succeeding ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ (Interrupted intermezzo), before the entry of the strings’ seductive, asymmetrical folky melody charmed with its relaxed poeticism.

The whirling Presto spun perpetually forward, the contrapuntal complexities lightly articulated, the rhythms imbued with innate power.   The flashing brilliance of the brass contributed to a terrific, heroic finale.

This is the Finnish conductor’s first season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Having first conducted the orchestra a few years ago, he has remarked: ‘I got the impression I could ask them whatever I wanted to, musically speaking, and got a response that was always exactly what I wanted it to be … we had a very good common understanding on basic things.’  One senses, on the evidence of this performance, that this ‘common understanding’ needs some thoughtful nurturing and negotiation; but, there is no reason to think that over time Oramo cannot, as he intends, ‘build something extraordinary’.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard here until 16 September

Claire Seymour

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