Welsh Contemporary Evening Features Two World Premieres

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hoddinott, Mark David Boden, Sarah Lianne Lewis, Michael Berkeley, Guto Puw: Robert Plane (clarinet), BBC National Orchesta of Wales / Jac van Steen (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 28.3.2018. (PCG)

HoddinottVariants for orchestra Op.41
Mark David Boden – Clarinet Concerto (world première)
Sarah Lianne LewisIs there no seeker of dreams that were? (Cardiff première)
Michael Berkeley – Concerto for Orchestra
Guto PuwCamouflage (world première)

The 90th anniversary season of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales falls this year. It has not been entirely favoured so far by good fortune – the scheduled concert and live broadcast for St David’s Day (including two world premières) had to be abandoned when a blizzard descended on South Wales, two concerts had to be given with last-minute substitutions when the engaged conductors fell ill – but in the context of some highly commendable and adventurous programming this event must surely be regarded as the acme of these endeavours. Five major works, all by Welsh composers (that is, living and working in the principality), including two world premières; all four of the currently living composers present in the hall to discuss their works and to receive applause; the orchestra on the top of their form, featuring one of their own principals as the soloist in a brand new concerto; a conductor whose work with the players and Welsh audiences over the years has established a real sense of rapport, and whose commitment to new music has never been in doubt. And the audience, containing many of the major names in Welsh music, thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed what they heard.

The biggest cheers were undoubtedly heard for the world première of the Clarinet Concerto by Mark David Boden (born in 1986, and not to be confused with his near-homonym Mark Bowden born in 1979, who was at one time composer-in-residence for this same orchestra). Over the years I have expressed enjoyment and appreciation of Boden’s work, but this concerto surpassed anything that I might have expected. From the outset, it has a bubbling vitality and engagement that raised the spirits of the audience; and it went on doing this during four movements in a fast-fast-slow-fast pattern. Each of these movements had titles – Adrenaline, Isontonic, Threshold and Hypertension – and these might have conveyed to us an association with marathon running, even if the composer had not confirmed this is a pre-performance discussion with Steph Power. Robert Plane, like the composer an enthusiastic marathon runner, threw himself into his athletic lines with glee and abandon, making light of the many high-flying passages which would have reduced many players to a squawking frenzy. If he sometimes found himself subsumed into the melée of orchestral woodwind skirling about him, this was all part of the fun; and the relatively brief slow movement, where the lambent clarinet lines stretched themselves over a series of chorale-like passages from the strings, made an effective contrast. We certainly need to hear this concerto again, and often. I am sure that the general music public – at least those who appreciate the music of Prokofiev or even Malcolm Arnold – would take it to their hearts, given the opportunity.

The other world première in this programme concluded the concert on a more sombre note, but the music itself was equally impressive. In the past I have commented that the music of Guto Puw often seems to reflect a specific musical programme, but here the nature of the reflection was more general and less particularised than the term ‘programme’ might suggest. The composer described his inspiration as being derived from the concept of camouflage (as indeed the title stated) – that is, orchestral colours emerging from and sinking back into a background that only slowly clears before once again reasserting itself. The idea sounds vague when expressed in words, but it worked superlatively in practice. The rushing strings in the first section reminded me of a section in the composer’s recent violin concerto, which I described at the time as recalling the ghosts in the nocturnal garden of Delius’s incidental music to Hassan; and ‘ghosts in the garden’ were certainly present here. The dense background sometimes also reflected a similar texture to the elaborate figurations of the dawn music from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé; but the figurations were altogether darker and more sinister, and the tone of underlying menace was much more palpable than Ravel’s marauding pirates. The resulting atmosphere paralleled in some ways the scherzo from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony; but the overall sound was quite different, and the sheer torrents of notes in the orchestral parts – and these were not repeated patterns, either – would have been impressive in their own right, especially delivered by the players at the end of a long and doubtless exhausting evening. Like the Boden concerto, this too is a work which needs to be heard again, and often; it may lack the concerto’s immediate appeal, but the rewards of acquaintance will probably be deeper.

Is there no seeker of dreams that were? by Sarah Lianne Lewis was first performed at the Bangor Festival by this orchestra in 2016, and was subsequently broadcast last year as part of a concert celebrating International Women’s Day. I was told by the composer that she had made some adjustments to the score since its première, and the impression made on me by the score in the live atmosphere of the concert hall was somewhat different from that created by the broadcast sound and interpretation. The impact of the sometimes unorthodox effects which the composer demands from the orchestra gained in some respects, of course, from the visual dimension; but they also registered more clearly as an integral part of the musical whole, an emotionally engaged lament for the composer’s grandmother who had died during the gestation of the music. The text comes from a poem by the American Cale Young Rice, which the composer had originally set as a song, but the main influence on the music comes from ‘imagery of wisps of forgotten or lost dreams’ (to quote her programme note) and the sense of an onward phantasmagorical quest, in the manner that the score progresses, is very real. So this, again, is a work that needs and deserves to be heard more than once, especially since the principal theme on the horn does not emerge fully until towards the end of the score.

The programme had begun with a performance of Hoddinott’s Variants for orchestra, a relatively early work from the mid-1960s. It had been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but was afterwards pretty comprehensively neglected despite the fact that it was recorded at the time by Norman del Mar (oddly enough with the London Symphony Orchestra). Its highly individual use of twelve-tone techniques is ingenious and carefully worked out – including a palindrome in the second movement Toccata – and indeed in some ways it has an almost symphonic construction, with a first movement entitled Sonata contrasting two themes in true classical form. Here the kaleidoscopic changes of texture – typical of Hoddinott’s music at this period – serves more to conceal than to reveal this form, but the scherzo-like Toccata and the variations leading into a nocturne which form the still central heart of the music have a real sense of unity and atmosphere. The concluding passacaglia and fugue are more diffuse, but build up an exciting head of steam leading to a rumbustious conclusion. The performance here comprehensively trounced the commercial recording – the BBC NOW strings are vastly superior to their LSO counterparts fifty years ago – and indeed a work of which Gary Higginson (reviewing the Lyrita reissue of that recording for this site) remarked that ‘perhaps the complex form outweighs its musical interest’ was vindicated and rehabilitated by a reading such as this.

The only other work on this programme which had already been commercially recorded was Michael Berkeley’s Concerto for orchestra, commissioned by this orchestra and set down on a Chandos CD by Richard Hickox in 2007 (although this is no longer listed as available). It is interesting that the release on disc provided the concerto with the subtitle Seascapes, but this description was missing both from the composer’s programme note and his spoken introduction to the music. That description might well however have appreciated one’s grasp of the wide-flung and somewhat rhapsodic music. Only the slow movement, written in memory of a friend killed in the 2004 tsunami disaster, really had the sense of concentration which might have led to a great feeling of engagement – and here the subtitle Threnody for a sad trumpet seemed to understate that case. The sudden eruption of a ferocious organ passage towards the end of the final movement, which seemed unmotivated here, might also have benefited from a great sense of knowledge of what underpinned the composer’s thoughts at this point. Mind you, the organ eruption was thrilling in its own right; but it could have been even more than a grandiose conclusion to a work which showed signs of becoming dangerously diffuse. There were, however, passages – such as the Pärt-like conclusion to the second-movement Thenody¸with its descending string lines and tolling bell – which communicated immediately and with emotion. And the playing, it need hardly be said (but it should be), was marvellous.

The whole concert was recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme at some unspecified future date. Those who were unable to get to the hall, and the many others listeners who enjoy new discoveries, should look out for the relay with eager anticipation. I should also point out to potential audiences that the music of Guto Puw is being featured in a ‘composer’s spotlight’ sponsored by Composers of Wales and Ensemble Cymru at Bangor Pontio on 13 May; and that two further spotlights by the same performers are scheduled for Cardiff Chapter Arts Centre on 4 May (featuring the music of Gareth Churchill) and Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 6 May (featuring Rhian Samuel). Full details of these concerts are to be found on the Ensemble Cymru website. And even more Welsh music is also scheduled by BBC NOW, who are giving an afternoon concert on 13 April to include Huw Watkins’s Three Welsh Songs and Mathias’s Third Symphony. Lovers of Welsh music are being superlatively well served by the BBC at present; long may it continue!

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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