Paul Mealor’s New Symphony Provides Illumination in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Mathias, Dove, Mealor, Nørgård: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Geoffrey Paterson (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 30.11.2018. (PCG)

William MathiasHelios, Op.76
Per NørgårdIris
SibeliusNight Ride and Sunrise, Op.55
Jonathan DoveSunshine (UK première)
Paul Mealor – Symphony No.3 ‘Illumination’ (world première)

It was a marvellous idea to celebrate the onset of the Welsh winter (cold, gloomy and wet) with an afternoon concert celebrating the sun. This enterprising programme featured only one work – Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise – which has any pretensions to inclusion in the standard repertory and featured in addition not only the world première of a symphony by Paul Mealor but also the first performance in the UK of Jonathan Dove’s tone-poem Sunshine and a rare chance to hear Per Nørgård’s Iris – Iris of course is the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology.

The overall title of the programme, Illumination, derived from Mealor’s symphony; but the programme commenced with another Welsh work, William Mathias’s symphonic poem Helios written at the outset of the final phase of his career. Although the music has a sunlit warmth and sunniness of disposition, it is also a reflection of a Greek holiday taken by the composer and his family, with elements of lively folk dances to leaven any mythological resonances. The 1977 score was dedicated to Grace Williams, who had died earlier the same year, and there are elements of her style evident in the pennillion-like counterpoint laid over the long-arching melodies. There are also elements of improvisation, with textures created from repeated patterns of notes within strictly circumscribed bounds.

Per Nørgård’s Iris (which followed, in accordance with the conductor’s request, without applause or break) gave a similar impression of random improvisation, but this was highly misleading. The score actually contains elaborate divisions of all the strings into solo lines, all them closely controlled in accordance with the composer’s sonic ‘infinity system’. Despite its seeming complexity, the music sustained a continuing mood of calm serenity with no vehement climaxes or other contrasting elements. One must, however, question the conductor’s approach to the three works in the first half of this programme (the ban on applause extended to the following Sibelius score as well) of treating them as different aspects of the same musical vision. Quite apart from the different sound-worlds inhabited by the three contrasting composers, the audience were clearly nonplussed by the notion of sitting through the successive scores without a break of any kind, and made their feelings felt by some ostentatious coughing during the Sibelius (and later). It must be quite exhausting for the orchestra, too.

Sibelius must be among the most exasperatingly vague composers when it comes to giving any sort of indication as to the exact speed at which he intends his music to be performed. Yet even he can scarcely have perpetrated anything so self-contradictory as his instruction in his tone-poem Night Ride and Sunrise for the sunrise itself Largo (ma non troppo lento) – which can only be interpreted as ‘very slow, but not too slow’. He does not help matters by his usual refusal to provide any metronome mark for guidance (although conductors frequently ignore these altogether on the rare occasions when he does oblige) and by his enthusiastic endorsement of interpretations by conductors in live performances during his lifetime, when the performances in question which we can hear on record often adopt diametrically opposed positions. The music itself falls into two very clear divisions, representing each one of the elements of the title. It is unfortunate that the composer makes no attempt to bind the long repeated rhythmic patterns of the strings in the Night Ride into the admittedly magnificent brass chorale melody that represents the dawn.

After the interval we heard the first UK performance of Jonathan Dove’s Sunshine, written in 2017 for the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra to perform as an encore item at their concerts. As a five-minute occasional piece, designed for the enjoyment of an audience, it succeeded admirably, although I was disappointed that the ‘singing’ violin line to which the composer alluded in his programme note was not in the same league as the beautiful melodies which we know lie well within his grasp. The chattering counterpoint indeed sounded like a cross between Samuel Barber (think of the First Essay for orchestra) and John Adams (Shaker loops, Harmonium), but was entertaining in its own right even when a momentary blip in the brass indicated that the music itself might not have been quite so straightforward to play as it sounded. But this is a light-hearted piece, as its title indicates, and I am sure we will hear it again.

Paul Mealor’s Third Symphony, over half an hour long, was most definitely not a light-hearted piece, although the notion of light lay at the core of its single movement. In a most informative programme note (and a spoken introduction) the composer showed how he had drawn inspiration from the final Paradiso section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The last part of the poem has always tended to be somewhat neglected by composers of works on Dante, who have inevitably been drawn to the more dramatic (and more grisly) elements of the descriptions of the earlier sections. Even Liszt in his Dante Symphony, after two substantial movements devoted to hell and purgatory, restricted his depiction of heaven to a choral setting of the Magnificat with the rising thirds of the plainchant moving inexorably upwards. Mealor took the same sequence of notes not only as a binding theme throughout the symphony but also as a launching pad for a series of very beautiful (indeed heavenly) string melodies in a passage which the composer described in his programme note as ‘unashamedly Romantic’.

These episodes are surrounded by passages which the composer terms ‘music in between the notes’, sections bordering on the brink of inaudibility in places which make use of various effects: a gong suspended in water, string bows used extensively on both pitched and unpitched percussion, harmonic glissandi in the strings like birdsong, and most effectively of all the use of multiple wine glasses to provide a shimmering tintinnabulation which launches the music on its course. At the other extreme comes the very end of the work, where a slowly and impressively constructed climactic chord leads onto a duet for two sets of tubular bells engaged in clangourous competition. This is so effective that one hardly needs the final chord to bring the work to its euphonious conclusion. One fears how the quieter stretches of the work might fare in the circumstances of a larger concert hall; even here one could feel the percussionists moving about as if in stockinged feet, where the slightest disruption such as a dropped drumstick could disturb the mood. I suspect the BBC engineers may need to boost the sound during the most extreme pianissimi, but those who can listen to the broadcast relay scheduled for 7 December (and available for a month thereafter) will find the results both moving and enlightening. What would be even better would be a studio recording.

Both Paul Mealor and Jonathan Dove were in the audience to receive the applause of a substantial body of listeners, who included a number of students from local schools. They took the opportunity to personally introduce their own music and Geoffrey Paterson also spoke from the podium. His control of the orchestra was exemplary throughout, and he judged the tricky speed in the final section of the Sibelius finely (as I have indicated, this demands careful consideration).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

3 thoughts on “Paul Mealor’s New Symphony Provides Illumination in Cardiff”

  1. Not all the audience ‘were clearly nonplussed by the notion of sitting through the successive scores without a break of any kind’; I thought this unbroken sequence worked well (and ‘Nightride and Sunrise’ was superb). Unfortunately the new work was a disappointment: Paul Mealor’s ‘Illumination’ was a spun-out string of clichés, and certainly not a ‘symphony’ in any meaningful sense of the word. The players and conductor did what they could with it but this was the worst piece I’ve heard the BBC NOW play this year.

  2. I think this is a superlative example of “one man’s meat being another man’s poison” – I might perhaps mention that the friend who attended the concert with me, a visual artist working in Cardiff, commented in a later email that “It was only when I got back to my studio that I was aware of how much I enjoyed the Mealor work. I think the forced silence from the audience demanded attention in a really interesting way.”

    It is fortunate that those listening to the BBC broadcast next Friday or on the iPlayer will be able to form their own judgement.

  3. This concert is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 7 December at 14:00, after which, presumably, it will be available to listen on line for the usual 30 days.


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