Committed Advocacy for Anna Clyne’s New Violin Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Butterworth, Anna Clyne & Elgar: Jennifer Koh (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.1.2016. (CS)

Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad

Anna Clyne: The Seamstress (UK Premiere)

Elgar: Symphony No.2 in E flat major Op.63

British-born Anna Clyne is composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and her music is more frequently heard in the US than in her homeland, though we did have the opportunity to enjoy her short work, Masquerade, when it was premiered at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop.

So, I was looking forward to the European premiere of her concerto for violin, titled The Seamstress, at the Barbican Hall.  Clyne describes The Seamstress as an ‘imaginary ballet’ in which weaving and story-telling intertwine: ‘Alone on the stage, the seamstress is seated, unravelling threads from an antique cloth laid gently over her lap.  Lost in her thoughts, her mind begins to meander and her imagination spirals into a series of five tales that range from love to despair, and that combine memory with fantasy.’  She took as her starting-point W.B. Yeats’s poem, ‘A Coat’, which begins:

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

It’s clear how Yeats’ lyricism and simple, direct image might be so suggestive to a composer, especially to Clyne, who has Irish roots on her mother’s side and who took Irish folk fiddle lessons in Chicago.

The work was written for Jennifer Koh, who gave the first performance in Chicago in May last year, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Ludovic Morlot.  Here, accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo, the American violinist played with sure intonation, sweet but strong tone, rhythmic assurance and absolute commitment, combining effortless charm and technical virtuosity.  The concerto is less a dramatic ‘argument’ between soloist and orchestra and more a melodic partnership, and Oramo guided the BBCSO sensitively through the various conversational episodes, while the orchestra retreated sensitively during Koh’s fiery bravura moments.  Oramo made a good attempt to meld the concerto’s contrasting sections into a compelling whole, and the individual interjections of the members of the BBCSO were eloquently phrased.

The various sections of the work pertain to the different stanzas of Yeats’s poem, but they are spun together into an unbroken 25-minute single movement.  The folk influences informing the work are immediately apparent in the gentle melancholy of the soloist’s Irish-tinged opening melody.  Clyne certainly has an innate feeling for string colours and textures.  (Her output includes two works for string ensemble, Within Her Arms (2008-09) and Rest These Hands (2014) and a double violin concerto with strings Prince of Clouds (2012), which Koh and her former teacher Jaime Laredo have recorded (Cedille 90000 146)).  In The Seamstress there are several passages where soloist and orchestral strings interact to form striking textural units.  In one central passage, the soloist’s pointed pizzicato repetitions are joined by cellos and then bass, while the timpani makes incursions into the growing argument, leading to the entrance of the upper strings, first pizzicato, then in strong chords which expand into a broad string unison – the whole forms a satisfying episode.

And Clyne appreciates the potential of the full orchestral array before her – the score includes cor anglais, bass clarinet, double bassoon, and a large collection of percussion – and there are many striking colours and soundscapes.  At the start, the clarinet’s arpeggio-like figures encouraged the double bassoon to make a low, dark entrance, while the soloist’s pizzicatos conversed with harp and glockenspiel, creating an airy spatial resonance.  There is diversity of material and mood, making considerable technical demands upon the soloist, as in a wild, dance-like passage in which Koh’s bold double-stops, together with the ever-changing time signature, grew into a diabolic frenzy, almost as if the soloist was a character in a Stravinsky ballet.  There is lyricism, too, and Koh’s bow strokes were impressively luxurious in these flowing outbursts, the orchestra forming a powerful counter-voice.

The Seamstress thus offers much to interest and delight the ear as it tells its tales, but the musical material itself lacks strong definition and character; that is, the harmonic patterns revolve like a passacaglia, and the melodic motifs spin round and round, but at times the musical direction feels weak, the structure episodic.  There were times when such episodes recalled the repetitive structures of Arvo Pärt, without the spirituality, or even Michael Nyman’s Celtic-imbued score for The Piano, without the latter’s sweeping, passionate forward impetus.

The final section of the work did build in tension, though; orchestral contrasts were emphasised and the BBCSO shifted suddenly from reticence to presence, an abrupt movement which did convey a ‘sense of an ending’, though this ‘conclusion’ felt rather hasty.  It’s hard to judge a new work on one hearing.  Koh’s silky introspective threads which spread in sinewy fashion, and her dynamic story-telling, did much to enhance the impression made by this concerto.  Clyne could not have wished for a more compelling advocate for the work.  The Seamstress beguiled sufficiently for me to look forward to another opportunity to absorb its simple, folk-inflected tunefulness and Clyne’s meticulous craftwork.

The Seamstress was preceded by another folk-inspired work: George Butterworth’s rhapsodic A Shropshire Lad.  Oramo emphasised the introspective quality of the opening, capturing the shadowy unease: the third-based melodic fragments of the violas and clarinets were discrete and distant, cloaked in the strings’ soft muted bed, and warmed only gently warmed by the harp’s spread chords.  The initial restraint made subsequent swellings of sound more telling.  Oramo skilfully built towards the first orchestral blossoming, the lyrical interchanges between violins and clarinets and high bassoons becoming increasingly animated before flowering into a broad melodic statement to whose closing pause the timpani’s trill gave firm reassurance.  Individual woodwind voices spoke clearly through the texture – a dusky cor anglais theme, the mournful clarity of the flute’s quotation from the composer’s song, ‘With Rue My Heart is Laden’, the hollowness of the clarinets’ final motivic utterances.  The brass colours were dark and foreboding, while the strings responded to Oramo’s wish for great contrast – the barest of delicate brushings, the richest of full-voiced song – with unity.  Oramo guided the BBCSO through the work’s gives-and-takes with thoughtfulness and control, and both the tragic and tranquil dimensions of the work – and of Housman’s poetry – were movingly captured.

Butterworth’s score shows the influence of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, and Elgar, and it was the latter’s Second Symphony which was a fitting conclusion to the programme.  Oramo’s offered an affirmative and athletic reading of the score, notable for the conductor’s unwavering attentiveness to its details.  The Allegro vivace e nobilmente began in brisk fashion, the BBCSO making a thrillingly vibrant entrance, with horns and trumpets particularly dazzling, before Oramo subdued the brightness, in a manner characteristic of the way in which he kept a firm eye on the long view throughout.  The conversations between the violins, seated antiphonally, were sweet-voiced and fresh, as the tempo ebbed and flowed.  But the orchestral sound was never over-indulgent, and there remained a slight coolness which rose to the fore in the first movement’s eerie ‘nocturnal’ passages.  There was drama too, though, derived from the springiness of the rhythms, and the final bars generated an exciting percussive drive.

The Larghetto was notable for its intense oboe solo, full of pathos, the expressive string pianissimos, and the subtle gradations of mood which Oramo crafted, from passionate lament to tender elegy.  The forceful entry of the brass, surging forth from the cellos’ and double basses’ theme, and vigorous timpani playing suggesting heartfelt emotion.  The scherzo Rondo was wild, a genuine Presto, the crisp running motifs generating urgency, but always nimble and clear.  The strings’ sonorous theme was complemented by the full, incisive tread of the tuba; the woodwind contributions always clearly defined.  The demonic fury of the movement was stirring, and its accelerating conclusion fittingly brutal and battering.  In the Moderato e maestoso, though initially there were reminders of the darkness of the opening movement, a reassuring heroism eventually quelled the unrest, and calmed the anger of the Rondo.  The thematic repetitions acquired a persuasive force.  Oramo powerfully conveyed both the composer’s characteristic nobilmente spirit and the serenity that Elgar expresses, particularly in the movement’s final moments, where the horns and clarinets projected with gentle loveliness above string and harp.  This was a very satisfying performance, in which Oramo showed that one does not need to be an Englishman in order to have an instinctive feeling for this music.

Claire Seymour

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