United Kingdom Contemporary Evening 1: Chloë Hanslip (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, B Tommy Andersson (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 21.2. 2018. (PCG)
Simon Holt – St Vitus in the Kettle: an icicle of moon (UK première)
Mark Bowden – Three Interludes (world première)
B Tommy Andersson – Violin Concerto ‘Homage to Michelangelo’ (UK première)
Alun Hoddinott – Dragon Fire
Mared Emlyn – Porthor (Whistling Sands)
Composition: Wales: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, B Tommy Andersson (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 23.2.2018. (PCG)
Luciano Williamson – Electric Bagatelle (world première)
Ian Lawson – High Aldons (world première)
Claire Victoria Roberts – Blue Lab (world première)
Lucy McPhee – Hard Wired for Orchestra 2: Learning (world première)
Iestyn Harding – The Magic Thief (world première)
John Senter – Mosaic (world première)
Gareth Churchill – Concentrations (world première)
The first of these events was a celebratory concert in a few ways: for the 90th anniversary of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales this year, for the 30th birthday of Mared Emlyn whose Porthor was here receiving its second performance, and for the 60th birthday of Simon Holt who had been the first composer-in-association with the orchestra and whose St Vitus in the Kettle had been one of the works given at the opening concert of the Hoddinott Hall in 2009.
In fact, I had reviewed St Vitus for this site when it was given by the orchestra at a subsequent concert in January 2014. At the time I had complained that despite its clearly programmatic title the audience was not given sufficient background to enable the scenario to be fully appreciated. Here we were furnished with a programme note by the composer. It gave us much information about the pseudo-legend of the saint himself and the disease named after him, but still no real link to the music itself which, with its Bartókian snap pizzicati, high isolated piccolo notes and frequent lapses into silence, continued to sound disjointed. It also seemed odd that in a work designed to showcase the orchestra as a whole, the reduction of the string forces to only six double-basses would consign more than half the players to the wings. By comparison, an icicle of moon (Holt clearly indicated that the title should be in lower case only, as is his frequent habit, although the BBC perversely gave it entirely in capitals in the programme headings), based on phrase from a poem of Federico García Lorca, had much more sense of concentrated atmosphere even when the musical style remained consistent with the earlier work. The short piece, here receiving its first British outing, had been commissioned as an encore item for the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and the Welsh players here certainly seemed to enjoy the challenges with which they were presented.
The three interludes by Mark Bowden were drawn from an as yet unnamed opera commissioned by the Welsh National Opera and were in the nature of a suite designed to show off the orchestral sections of the score which revolves around a city beneath the sea in a dystopian future. The excerpts totalled around half the length of the announced twenty minutes but did form a suitable set of illustrative passages. The composer informed us that the three sections were intended to form part of a set of six interludes, although he went out of the way to disclaim any parallels with Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Of the three pieces here, the second Shore movement was particularly effective as an illustration of a desolate polluted wasteland and will doubtless seize the attention of an opera audience in the theatre.
Hoddinott’s Dragon Fire, originally commissioned for the 70th anniversary of this orchestra, was a similarly theatrical work. I remarked, when reviewing a performance for this site back in 2014, that it sounded somewhat like a soundtrack for an imaginary film—and the score had a decidedly dramatic impact. Here B Tommy Andersson emphasised the structural integrity of the music as well, and what had seemed before like purely atmospheric effects on the wind machine and thunder sheet assumed their place as an integral component of the percussion section. Indeed, the work is to all intents and purposes a percussion concerto for multiple players, as well as having smaller units linked together in a three-movement pattern. The central slow section develops a melodic string cantilena which gathers real emotional force, and again one suspects the presence of an undeclared programme underlying the notes. This is Hoddinott’s score which really deserves a commercial recording…
… as does Mared Emlyn’s Porthor. The piece is based on the famous ‘whistling sands’ of the beach in North Wales which (given the right conditions) will squeak beneath the feet of those who walk on it. The main material is a very beautiful rhapsodic contemplation of nature launched by the cor anglais, and this is contrasted with percussive textures which—the composer informed us in a discussion with Steph Power—were intended to convey the grains of sand rubbing against each other. The dark textures and the light are superbly well contrasted in what becomes in effect an example of that supposedly dying musical form, the tone poem. I am sure that this piece, given sufficient exposure, would establish itself in the mainstream repertory of orchestras outside Wales. It should be given that opportunity.
The central item on this programme, and the longest, was the UK première of the conductor’s own violin concerto, featuring no less a soloist than Chloë Hanslip. She found herself on occasions overwhelmed by the enthusiastic orchestration of Andersson, especially in the outer movements, but the results were always exciting, and she never totally submerged beneath the welter of sound that the composer was conjuring from his players. The music itself suggested a number of influences in turn. Beginning with Bartók, it migrated into the territory of Szymanowski and then Barber before setting in the extended slow movement firmly into the rich realm of Strauss (think of the elaborate textures of Metamorphosen or the closing scene of Daphne). The results were enthralling, with Hanslip’s solo line thrilling over the elaborately divided strings below in a manner that evoked the world of Michelangelo’s poetry to which the subtitle of the concerto alluded. Andersson has apparently set some of these poems as songs; I would love to hear them, especially if they came in orchestral versions with this same sort of luxuriance. Even die-hard modernists in the hall (and there were a goodly number of academics and other professionals represented) were moved. The concert is being broadcast as part of Radio 3’s late-evening Hear and Now slot at some future date, but I would hope that this violin concerto might also find exposure outside the purely new music field where I am sure it would find an appreciative audience. Any chance of Chloë Hanslip providing us with a commercial recording?
Over the two following days, the indefatigable Andersson led the orchestra in a series of workshop rehearsals of seven brand-new scores by Welsh composers, culminating in an evening concert. This was the first time he had assumed responsibility for these Composition: Wales workshops, taking over from the sterling Jac van Steen’s pioneering work over many years. In previous years, a number of scores have been selected for rehearsals and revision under the guidance of various mentoring composers (Huw Watkins and Tansy Davies this year) and from these only some works have been included in the final public concert, a rather dispiriting experience I suspect for those excluded from that event; but here all seven of the scores were featured, since the rules for submission had been re-drawn to specifically request shorter works suitable for use as concert encores. This may have been a partial response to Jac van Steen’s expressed concern that the pieces heard during these workshops were very rarely taken into the orchestra’s central repertory. Whereas in earlier years some of the pieces considered were clearly student efforts by young composers, here the emphasis had shifted towards the older generation with the result that changes made to the music (which were helpfully itemised in a booklet supplied, together with the complete scores, to those attending the rehearsals) centred more around matters of balance and interpretation rather than more basic elements such as wrong notes or unrealisable orchestral effects. The late Peter Reynolds once observed to me that one of the disadvantages of the advent of computer technology in the composition of music was the ease by which whole passages could be cut-and-pasted from one section or one instrument to another; in past years the effects of these could clearly be seen in scores, for example, where string passages were transferred unchanged into the celesta with clearly unrealistic demands for volume and expression. In the scores which we heard here, there was limited evidence of such practice, and the composers indeed in places had subtly changed the scoring of repeated passages to ensure that such solecisms were avoided.
As in the concert two days before, the one thing that really impressed was the sheer variety of musical styles on offer. The most conservative score was Ian Lawson’s High Aldons, an orchestration of a piece originally written for folk band and described in his booklet note by the composer as ‘a sort of classical/folk/crossover piece’. In rehearsal he stated that he wanted to avoid an ‘English pastoral’ atmosphere, but his use of a modal theme in dotted 6/8 rhythm with minimal harmonic shifts made such parallels almost inevitable. I suspect, however, that Vaughan Williams or Butterworth would have introduced more adventurous shadings into the variations to which Lawson subjected his melody; the parallel was rather with Grainger’s Green Bushes, although less extended and less elaborate. And there was some evidence of over-literal cutting-and-pasting in the unison harp and celesta lines towards the end, which, although marked fff, simply failed to penetrate the orchestral welter of sound.
There was also evidence of cut-and-paste, more clearly calculated, in Iestyn Harding’s The Magic Thief, a bouncy piece inspired by the semi-legendary Welsh bard Taliesin; it borrowed recognisable passages from other composers — I recognised Mussorgsky (Night on Bare Mountain), Holst (two passages from Jupiter), Bernstein (Candide) and Mahler, I think — although at no time did what the composer described as these ‘musical allusions’ predominate and they were frequently combined with new material in an ear-tickling manner. This was all great fun, and what the composer termed this ‘children’s story’ would, with its infectious dance rhythms, make an enjoyable feature in any concert of light music. The danger of collage techniques can be that the quotations are the most prominently memorable section of a score, but the composer’s light touch avoided that potential pitfall.
In earlier years, these workshops have tended to feature a preponderance of programmatic works, often with highly elaborate scenarios to underpin the music. Apart from the two works already discussed, this year’s scores were very much more abstract and formal in construction, and this was particularly true of John Senter’s Mosaic, a contrast to his previous orchestral works which have derived from extra-musical associations. On first hearing, I found the lack of such a basis slightly perturbing, but on further acquaintance (a major advantage of hearing new music in rehearsal as well as in concert) the structural basis of the music — building up larger forms from small mosaic-like ‘tiles’ — became clearer and impressive. The melody that finally emerged in the strings was an emotionally charged central point, and the final pages had a rumbustious energy. Even so, the wide-ranging xylophone part extending over three octaves meant that some of the lower-lying passages had to be transposed up by an octave, lending them an undue and nagging prominence.
Although Lucy McPhee’s Hard wired for orchestra claimed to be a programmatic representation of the character of ‘Hairy Hat Man’ from the teaching manual Letterland but did not actually explain in any detail how this related to the music (I am unfamiliar with the book in question). She did elucidate the manner in which certain letters had been ciphered into the music, but the results fell into place quite naturally without the need for such reference. The work featured a prominent role for the alto flute near the beginning, and at one point this (and its counterpoint) almost threatened to break into a passage from an unmade Harry Potter movie, but the results were charming and pleasurable.
More experimental in her approach was Claire Victoria Roberts whose Blue Lab derived its title from the jazz-funk duo, the bass line from one of whose songs was ‘referenced’ in the music. She stated in her programme note that her aim ‘was that it should become part of the tonal palette of the piece’ but, being unfamiliar with the original material, I was unable to determine how successful she was in that aim; she did not state which song she was exactly referencing, but investigation between rehearsal and concert suggested to me that it might have been the track Keep moving with the original rhythm expanded to 5/4. (After the performance the composer told me that she had in fact employed several different tracks from the album.) It was probably better to treat the music in purely abstract terms, and in those terms it worked well.
Luciano Williamson was the only composer featured in this programme who is currently still a student. Although his Electric Bagatelle could have lost its adjectival description without forfeiting any credibility, it proved a rousing piece with which to open the concert. The flickering changes of rhythm throughout (many of the works featured here seemed to be remarkably content with a consistent pulse, even when this was highly syncopated) kept both conductor and orchestra on their toes, but the music flowed fluently from one sparkling idea to the next and the result seemed to be ideally suited to the idea of a short curtain-raiser or encore piece. The middle section, with its tone-clusters and heavily divided strings, made quite a contrast to the rumbustious opening; but when this material returned to conclude the piece, its appearance was disconcertingly short.
Gareth Churchill’s Concentrations, described as a concertino for orchestra, seemed on the other hand to be all too constricted by the short duration specified and the time-scale available. The composer’s interest in cryptography was reflected in an ingenious structure of six short interlinked movements, each centred around a specific harmonic interval moving from semitones at the beginning to augmented fourths at the end. But none of the individually intriguing sections were really given enough room to expand and explore their full possibilities, generating thematic material that might have lent focus to the work as a whole (although the dolce passage in major seconds generated an arabesque of a melody which could have been developed). I got the impression of a more substantial work struggling to escape from its straitjacket of timing, although the composer’s aspiration was clear enough. But then again, the performance may have suffered from the inevitable tiredness that would have afflicted the players towards the end of an evening of new music, although the performances under B Tommy Andersson were certainly enthusiastic enough, and Churchill’s use of a string bow on the tamtam had plenty of impact. In the end one just wished that the work itself had been longer; it would really have benefited from a more substantial time-frame.
These two events form only part of what promises to be an exciting year for contemporary music in Wales. A further BBC ‘contemporary evening’ is scheduled for 28 March, to include the world premières of Mark David Boden’s clarinet concerto and Guto Puw’s Camouflage as well as a second hearing of Sarah Lianne Lewis’s Is there no seeker of dreams that were? first heard in the same concert as Mared Emlyn’s Porthor a year or so back. Two new works by Paul Mealor and Gareth Glyn (both previously featured in the BBC workshops in earlier years) are included in the orchestra’s St David’s Day concert on 1 March. And Composers of Wales (in which I should declare an interest as its secretary!) is promoting three Composers’ Spotlight concerts in early May featuring works by Gareth Churchill, Guto Puw and Rhian Samuel all performed by Ensemble Cymru, details of which can be found on the latter organisation’s website. It is hoped that these ‘spotlights’, like the BBC’s workshops, will become an annual event. I earnestly hope that audiences interested in the development of classical music in Wales would make every effort to attend.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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