United Kingdom Various composers, Vale of Glamorgan Festival: Ensemble Midtvest, Penarth Pier Pavilion, 16.5.2018. (PCG)
Per Nørgård – Many Returns to Bali
Bent Sørensen – Lontanamente, Gondole
Anders Nordentoft –Doruntine
David Lang – wed, thorn
John Metcalf – Six Palindromes (world première)
Since 2013, my annual visits to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival have been one of the highlights of my reviewing year in South Wales. I was delighted to be invited last week to a reception to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Festival, which is to be celebrated throughout this year. Unfortunately, the pressure of other work prevented my attendance at any of the six earlier concerts in this year’s Festival. I was, then, particularly pleased to be able to find the time to visit the recital given in the refurbished art deco Pavilion at Penarth Pier, which closed the current year’s programme. In the past I have complained about the ambient noise at this venue – the noises of summer crowds of tourists on the pier penetrating into the auditorium – but on this occasion the cloudy weather had clearly deterred the holidaymakers, and the distant sounds of traffic hardly made themselves evident.
The Danish ensemble Midtvest are regular visitors to the Festival. On this occasion, they presented three works by living Danish composers: Per Nørgård (born 1932), Bent Sørensen (born 1958) and Anders Nordentoft (born 1957). Nørgård’s piano solo Many Return to Bali was described by the composer in his programme note as a ‘homage’ to the island of Bali following terrorist bombing in 2002. That element was evident in a tribute to gamelan techniques, where the lazily squeezed offbeat rhythms lent the music almost a ragtime feel, although at times Scott Joplin threatened to transform into the shade of Milhaud’s Scaramouche.
We were told that Doruntine by Anders Nordentoft was based upon a novel by Ismail Kadare set in thirteenth-century Albania. The scoring for piano trio developed from strings echoing an explosive piano figure, gradually cohering into wisps of melodic material. Clearly some part of the music had programmatic intentions – the composer’s note referred to ‘strange musical landscapes’ – but we really needed more guidance to properly appreciate these, although the closing bars were nicely atmospheric.
Bent Sørensen’s two pieces were movements from a string trio entitled Gondole (elsewhere in the programme the composer referred to ‘my recurrent dream about Venezia’). Lontanamente, scored for solo clarinet and described as ‘fragments of a waltz’, made a greater impression. This piece, with the clarinet isolated in the further reaches of the recital room (Elaine Ruby could with advantage have been still more distantly placed) might perhaps best be described as six variations in search of a theme, which finally emerged at the end as a bizarre sort of waltz with remote echoes of The wild colonial boy. The scoring made much use of the extremes of dynamic available on the clarinet, with some passages reduced to a mere whisper of sound. The second movement of Gondole (described as ‘gondola in dreams’) had a similar sense of mystery, although it was perhaps too long for its content; and ‘the gondola with the flowery dress’ (a story surely underlines this title, although we were not told what it was) made much play with pizzicati echoed by glissandi, with the cellist Jonathan Slaatto asked to whistle at the end with novel effect, like a musical saw or theremin intruding into the landscape.
Of the non-Danish works on the programme, we heard two shortish pieces by the American David Lang (born 1957). This composer seems to have a deep dislike of capital letters: of the five works included in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival this year, not one of the titles made any use of them. The short piece wed, scored for string quartet, derives from incidental music written for a production of The Tempest. The composer’s programme note states that ‘it should be subdued and still, devoid of almost all expression’. The piece was pleasant enough, but unfortunately it also had very little thematic content; Morton Feldman handled this sort of thing much better. The second piece on the programme, thorn for solo flute, was described by Lang as a series of ‘spikes’ interrupting a ‘long, slow quiet melody’ – but the latter was to my ears conspicuous by its total absence. What we did hear was a sharp high flute squeal followed by a brief flurry of notes in the lower register; and this brief cell, lasting three or four seconds or so, was then incessantly repeated at various pitches over a duration of some five minutes. In a spoken introduction to the piece, Charlotte Norholt informed us that the composer had given the instruction that ‘the top notes should be painful’. She was far too accomplished a musician to give us an actually painful sound, but the lack of variety in the music wore decidedly thin after a while, and there seemed to be no actual reason why it stopped precisely when it did. A quotation from the New Yorker cited in the programme stated that ‘Lang, once a postminimalist enfant terrible, has solidified his standing as an American master’ – but the two pieces here, admittedly written back in the 1990s, suggest that his mastery may be of a decidedly intermittent nature.
The world première of John Metcalf’s Six Palindromes was another matter altogether. The palindromic techniques – where material is presented in full and then recurs in retrograde motion leading back to the beginning – implies a strictly methodical approach to the composition. Here, however, the elaboration of the textures (including, I am fairly sure, rescoring of some of the repeated passages of music) made the formal construction almost impossible to decipher at first hearing. So I gave up trying to analyse it, and simply surrendered to enjoyment of the music – and it was most enjoyable. The slow second movement had a beautiful and passionate nature, but for the most part the music was effervescent and even light-hearted, and superbly played by the five wind players of the ensemble together with Martin Qvist Hansen on piano. The rich high register of Yavor Petkov’s bassoon, plangent where many players are simply querulous, was a particular source of delight. The final movement was a rescored version of Metcalf’s earlier Never Odd or Even (the title itself a palindrome) written for six pianos back in the 1990s; I reviewed it with pleasure for this site when it featured at a Festival concert last year. The frantic headlong charge of the music made for an exciting conclusion to a work which, despite its surface attractiveness, also had a granitic sense of onward drive and purpose. The audience, nearly filling the hall (itself a rarity at a concert of contemporary music), cheered the composer and the players to the rafters.
The policy of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of restricting their performances entirely to the work of contemporary (living or very recently dead) composers might have been regarded as commercial death in many other circumstances, and certainly would not have guaranteed the survival of the Festival for fifty years. But the judicious selection of scores by John Metcalf as Artistic Director for much of those years, and the willingness of audiences to trust in his judgement, has established a sympathetic and indeed enthusiastic band of listeners which extends well beyond the trodden paths of enthusiasts for modern music. Not all the scores have been masterpieces, of course; but there have been remarkably few misses to set against the hits that have been presented to us. It is no surprise that tributes from other reviewers such as Steph Power and Rian Evans – the one in the form of a filmed documentary and the other in a trenchant and relevant discussion of the role of music in Wales today – featured during the reception last week, which was introduced by that doyen of BBC radio announcers Nicola Heywood Thomas. In an article for this year’s Festival programme, John Metcalf reports that the events in 2017 had attracted nearly 3,500 attendees – an amazing number for a series of concerts that made no concessions to conventional taste and ‘classical fare’. At the same time, he voices some serious concerns about the future: ‘Are the resources at every level that support music in Wales stretched and at risk? Is there a danger that the gains of the recent era may be allowed to decay and atrophy? The clear answer is yes.’ It is essential that, in the changing political climate produced by Brexit and Welsh devolution, musicians in Wales should strain every sinew to ensure that ventures like the Vale of Glamorgan Festival continue to flourish for the next fifty years – and beyond.
Paul Corfield Godfrey