Cheltenham Music Festival: Festival Concludes on a High Note with Two Iconic Works

Blackford, Holst: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Savitri Singers / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 12.7.2014. (RJ)

Richard Blackford: The Great Animal Orchestra
Gustav Holst: Suite – The Planets


I was disappointed that the first orchestral concert at this year’s Festival featured no living composer; indeed the lion’s share of the works performed harked back to the 19th century. Hardly an auspicious start to a Festival that prides itself on being at the “cutting edge” of music and started off in 1945 with a work hot off the press by Benjamin Britten! However the final concert more than compensated for the disappointments of the first with two works which in certain respects are/were ahead of their time.

Richard Blackford’s new work, The Great Animal Orchestra, draws its inspiration from the natural world – especially from research conducted by Bernie Krause who has made a prodigious number of recordings of birds, mammals and the insect world over the part 45 years. Through the use of a spectrometer Krause found that the intricate layers of sound created by the animal world resemble the layers and textures of an orchestral score – representing a symphony in sound, in other words.  Each creature inhabits its own set time and frequency niches just as musical instruments operate within a given range within an orchestra. Some of our fellow-creatures it seems are very sophisticated musicians indeed: the Musician Wren of Central America, for instance, has a 44 note melody in its repertoire.

So much for the theory of biophony which can be perused at leisure in Krause’s book, also entitled The Great Animal Orchestra. How does one convert the sounds of nature into a coherent symphonic form. Blackford’s approach is rather subtle: each of the five movements begins with a tape of the natural soundscape from which the orchestra takes its cue. In the first movement the orchestra tunes in to the natural world as it were, incorporating the sounds of serenading gibbons and the hump backed whale. A chorus of Pacific tree frogs leads into the second, an entertaining scherzo full of infectious percussion and jazz rhythms with an extended riff at the end.

The third movement, entitled Elegy, opens with a chilling microtonal chorus of howling wolves supported by four French horns and also features a beaver’s heart-breaking lament on the death of his wife and family played on a bassoon. Africa is featured in the fourth movement with a herd of elephants marching through clouds of dust and the scream of a gorilla as it charges.  The Musician Wren, mentioned above, receives its just deserts from Richard Blackford in the concluding movement: he uses its melody as the theme for a set of variations, with contributions from the Common Pottoo (which uses the pentatonic scale) and interventions from the Screaming Piha.

The concept may sound a bit wacky, but The Great Animal Orchestra actually works quite well in purely musical terms. Blackford holds the first movement together with a five chord ritornello on the brass, and other motifs, mainly on the strings, help to unify the work further. There is also an underlying message, as in his choral work Not in Our Time which was a plea for religious tolerance and a rejection of conflicts caused by religious differences. This latest work urges mankind to understand and respect the natural world and avoid the wholesale destruction of wildlife and its habitats.

While I am full of praise for Richard Blackford for his ground-breaking work, I hold conductor  Martyn Brabbins and BBC National Orchestra of Wales in awe for the magnificent performance they accorded it. Despite the new work’s enormous demands, including the need to blend in with the recorded soundscapes, the orchestral players carried on uncomplainingly like intrepid explorers making their way through the jungles of Borneo. Some of them even seemed to be enjoying the challenge.  They certainly deserved the fulsome applause at the end.

No doubt they were relieved after the interval to be on more familiar territory in The Planets Suite by Cheltenham composer Gustav Holst. However Brabbins did not relax his grip and offered a robust Mars, Jupiter and Uranus, a sprightly Mercury, a chilling Saturn and a haunting Neptune. It is worth recalling than in its day this too was a work which defied convention and was well ahead of its time. What a rare privilege it was to hear two such original and momentous works in the same concert! Cheltenham’s 70th Festival really has finished in a blaze of glory!


Roger Jones

The concert was broadcast live by the BBC and can be heard on the BBC i-player until the end of this week.   



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