United Kingdom O’Regan, Watkins, Ward, Ying: Simon Callow (narrator), Adam Walker (flute), Cheng Yu (pipa), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Duncan Ward (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 14.5.2014 (PCG)
Tarik O’Regan – Suite from Heart of Darkness
Huw Watkins – Flute Concerto
Duncan Ward – Fumes
Xiao Ying – The cloud on the wishful side
Composers over the ages have often felt the need to extract orchestral suites from their operas, and Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, did it all the time. Tarik O’Regan, one of the featured composers at this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, has felt similarly tempted and his “suite for chamber ensemble and narrator” was here given its first Welsh performance. Actually the composer has effectively redefined the notion of a chamber ensemble, since the suite employs the full forces of a symphony orchestra and the work was first given last year in London by the Royal Philharmonic. The music has been rescored from its original formulation for thirteen instruments, and in this performance Simon Callow was situated in the middle of the violin section, tactfully amplified to allow the words to come across. The use of a narrator could have turned the music into a sort of film soundtrack, but enough time and room was left to allow the orchestra its head. In fact, the music did not really need the narration; but it certainly helped to elucidate the dramatic situation and maintain the interest, and Callow delivered it with all the panache (and range of characteristic accents) that one would have expected. The rich string cantilena which emerged as the narrator reached the end of his journey sounded very special in the hands and bows of the BBC NoW violins, and the upbeat conclusion to the suite did not shirk the uncomfortable undertones of the story. Unfortunately because of a misunderstanding about the starting time of the concert I missed the opening performance of O’Regan’s Manifest, but I did stay for an illuminating post-concert talk in which Nicola Haywood-Thomas interviewed Callow, the composer and the original librettist Tom Phillips.
(I should also mention that several other works by Tarik O’Regan were featured in the gala opening evening of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, including his recent guitar pieces Eminent Domains played with poise by Stewart French, two early piano miniatures and a song setting Robert Louis Stevenson in My house I say. However the miniatures served mainly to demonstrate how far the composer’s style has evolved over the last twenty years, and the rather inelegant lines of the song paled in comparison with the hilarious Worry/Don’t worry by Robert Fokkens, dispatched with wry humour by Sarah Dacey and Clare Hammond. In the same concert Peter Bruun presented his The Green Groves, a work based on a set of variations on an imitation ‘folk tune’ and a programme of gruesome import which left one with the distinct impression that maidens should avoid at all costs going to sleep in the forest. It was excellent played by Ensemble MidtVest and repeated in the main concert programme the following evening.)
Huw Watkins’s Flute Concerto was the other major work on this programme; the orchestra was slightly reduced in size (horns and trumpets, woodwind, harp, strings and only one percussionist) but this did not preclude dramatic climaxes with plenty of imaginative interplay between soloist and orchestra. The first movement featured a reflective cadenza-like section bathed in solo strings and some imaginative interplay between soloist Adam Ward and orchestral flautist Matthew Featherstone. There was also an imaginative use of contrasted sonorities in the slow movement, set in motion by harp harmonics amidst a haze of string tone. The movement ended almost in a dying whisper, before a frolicking rondo finale which included a cadenza over a long-sustained bassoon pedal and a reminiscence of the slow movement before its unexpectedly abrupt ending. Adam Walker was an admirable soloist, as lithe as quicksilver and beautifully expressive; and Duncan Ward obtained excellent playing from the orchestra.
Duncan Ward’s own Fumes began with snap pizzicato from the double basses and slithering glissandi from the cellos which launched the work arrestingly. In his programme note the composer described the piece as “an urban landscape, a swirling mixture of influential particles, and the intoxicating force of a newfound guru on my musical personality” and he referred to the music as a “psychedelic dreamscape.” But this dreamscape had strong elements of an expressionist nightmare; the swirling mixture was certainly present, and the technical mastery of the orchestra was impressive, but the restless contrasts and violent outbursts sounding very like much music we have heard before from other composers. That could most certainly not be said for Xiao Ying’s oddly titled The cloud on the wishful side (the composer’s brief programme note offered no explanation) which consisted of five movements “based on an independent musical language, from atonality to pan-tonality and then from pan-atonality to tonality.” I am not precisely sure what is meant by “pan-atonality” – but the move to tonality sounded very beautiful indeed, and the composer in a speech at the end of the performance expressed his thanks for an “amazing performance” from the orchestra. The delicate sounds of Cheng Yu’s pipa came across well, too.
Paul Corfield Godfrey