Michael Nyman’s 70th Birthday Celebrated in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Michael Nyman: 70th Birthday Celebration Concert. Alexander Balanescu (violin); John Harle (saxophone); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Nyman & Josep Vicent (conductors). Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.4.2014 (CC)

The Draughtsman’s Contract: Suite for orchestra (2003/2014)
Violin Concerto No.1 (2003) (UK premiere)
Saxophone Concerto (“Where the bee dances”) (1993/2014) (UK premiere of revised version)
Symphony No.2 (UK premiere)

The piece The Draughtsman’s Contract includes multiple quotes from Purcell and seems to revel in Purcell’s use of the ground – the link of this repetitive technique with minimalism is obvious, when one hears it in this context. It was interesting to hear “An Eye for Optical Theory” in the orchestral version (it is available played by Nyman himself on piano on “The Piano Sings, Volume 2”, MNRCD131). Nyman had studied Purcell whilst a student of Thurston Dart, and the influence clearly runs deep. The prism of Nyman’s own mind on Purcell takes the music to a sort of minimalism. This first piece of the concert was conducted, rather awkwardly, by Nyman himself. But the orchestra seemed to respect him: this is the best I have heard the RPO play for years, and the shrillness of the violins in previous performances was all but gone. Nyman makes the genesis-point of the music (Purcell) very obvious before letting it blossom into something which is more obviously Nyman. There were some balance problems, though, notably with an amplified harpsichord, and one had to question how much rehearsal time had been allocated. The pin-point ensemble this music so desperately requires was not quite there.

The young and enthusiastic conductor Josep Vicent conducted the rest of the concert. The saxophone and orchestra concerto “Where the Bee Dances” was given a fabulous performance by master saxophonist John Harle. The quiet opening seems explicitly to reference jazz. Harle’s control of his instrument was pure magic, his breath technique in particular magnificent. Nyman’s ability to build up textures slowly but inexorably, heard time and time again during the course of the evening, is possibly heard at its best here. Demands on the brass section are remarkably high, and were negotiated with aplomb by the RPO musicians. This was, in fact, the highlight of the concert.

The Violin Concerto No. 1 was marred by the rather harsh tone of soloist Alexander Balanescu. There was nothing wrong with his stamina, though – this is not a short work and the soloist seems to play in huge paragraphs. Based on the idea of a sequence of photo frames, the work is divided into 18 sections; Nyman takes the idea of taking a number of snaps of an object from a number of different angles as a rather nice starting point. There are also references to the Berg Violin Concerto. Unfortunately the inspiration seems lacklustre in comparison to the two pieces around it; indeed it did not seem to live up the promise of the ideas behind it, either.

Apparently Nyman is engaged in the composition of a series of 19 symphonies. The Second Symphony of 2013 was here receiving its UK premiere. There are four movements, interconnected but not played as a continuous whole. Coming out of the music for the film Pozcatek, the filmic origins seem particularly obvious in the opening movement (in fact in the opening paragraphs). The RPO again performed the sections in which the music seems to move “out of phase” terrifically well (especially the asynchronous passages in the second movement), and the long textural and dynamic crescendos were expertly timed by Vicent. There was a fine slow section, full of open sonorities.

Nyman is a fine craftsman, and it was good to see his fan base out in such numbers, especially given the concert came at the tail end of the tube strike.

Colin Clarke

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