Indefatigable Jac van Steen Premieres Music by Welsh Composers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sayers, Grainger, Humphries, Furber, Jones: COMPOSITION WALES. BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 28.4.2016 (PCG)

Lenny Sayers – Severn Blue
Harriet Grainger – Glasslines
Martin Humphries – A Sovereign Hawk
Lewis Furber – Westminster Dances
Carol J Jones – Songs from the stars: First movement

I have been attending the workshops and concerts promoted by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for a good many years now, and in previous reviews for this site have observed the rather peculiar contrasts that have become apparent between works written by relatively well-established Welsh composers despairing of getting their orchestral scores performed as part of the standard run of BBC programmes, and inexperienced writers who clearly would benefit from the workshop process but sometimes failed to take advantage of the opportunity to revise their music prior to performance. My strictures on some of the latter have occasioned protests from some quarters, and although I was not able this year to be present for all the workshop sessions I was perturbed to note at the early stages that some of the works selected showed a decided failure to address sheer problems of practicability – the more noticeable in that all the pieces chosen were written by composers under the age of forty, some of them scoring for full orchestra for the first time. However by the stage of this final concert something really worthwhile had emerged, and all the works presented here showed both engagement and a sense of enthusiasm that had not always been apparent in earlier years.

In particular it was hard to believe that Severn Blue by Lenny Sayers was the composer’s first work for orchestra. He showed a real willingness to write for the strengths of this superb band of musicians, and although he disclaimed any programmatic intent (the title is a pun on the fact that much of the score is in septuple time or features chords of the seventh) the very opening was firmly in the British pastoral tradition with decided overtones of the delicacy of Moeran’s Lonely waters for example. This led in turn to a rumbustious scherzo with jazz elements in the best Waltonian manner which was scored with an idiomatic freshness that communicated itself readily to the listener. The composer is himself an orchestral musician, playing bass clarinet with the BBC NoW, and he clearly understands technique from the inside. The music hardly needed workshop treatment (it had sounded fully formed at the first rehearsal) but it is certainly a work that deserves to be heard again.

Glasslines by Harriet Grainger was similarly the first work for orchestra by this composer, and although it did not display the same close familiarity with sound and technique that Lenny Sayers had shown it was in its own less flashy way just as effective. Where it did miss out was in its treatment of individual players; the very percussive textures minimised the contributions of woodwind and strings in particular. The title of the piece led one to expect something on the lines of American minimalism, but instead we had a reflection on lines by Shelley which were prefixed to the score and which fitted the music excellently.

A programme was also supplied for Martin Humphries’s A Sovereign Hawk, describing the captivity of the brother of the last sovereign Prince of Wales (not “King” as misleadingly stated by the composer both in his programme note and spoken introduction) but which I failed to find conveyed by the music except in a more generalised sense of violence and protest. But the propulsive rhythmic preoccupations were envigorating, and the score was well served by the players. This too was a work that communicated to an audience.

And so did Lewis Furber’s Westminster Dances, introduced by the composer is an attractively self-deprecating manner, which had a real sense of humour apparent even in the most apparently discordant places; the composer described the work as a “kaleidoscopic romp.” Indeed it was, beginning and ending with the Westminster chimes heard through a mist of hazy strings in the tradition of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony and then presenting fragments of a polka and a waltz built around the same theme with all the iconoclastic panache of Peter Maxwell Davies and culminating in a rebarbative climax marked (rightly) “cacophony”. I am not sure how well the jokes would work on repetition, but they certainly struck home here.

Finally we heard a movement from Carol J Jones’s Songs from the stars, probably the most sheerly experimental piece on the programme and based on ideas drawn from space exploration. The exotic textures could perhaps have formed the soundtrack for a sci-fi horror movie, but the quietly atmospheric opening was interrupted by an errant mobile telephone in the audience; Jac van Steen rightly stopped the performance and started again from the beginning, but oddly enough I was left with the feeling that the electronic interjection might not have been totally out of place. One would be interested to hear how the later movements develop – the material here was clearly introductory to something else.

The performances by the orchestra under the indefatigable Jac van Steen (who has been masterminding these events for some years) were well-nigh faultless (I caught one un-co-ordinated rhythm at one point) and rose to great heights of passion when called for. And one of the pieces here, that by Lenny Sayers, would surely be appreciated by general audiences outside the “new music fraternity”. I note however that the advance notification of the workshops for next year are asking for shorter items suitable for use as a “curtain raiser” at the BBC NoW concerts, so hopefully works given there will find their way more readily into general circulation.

Paul Godfrey


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