United Kingdom Composition: Wales: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / B Tommy Anderson (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 4.3.2020. (PCG)
Jasper Dommett – Night Music
Stephen Goss – The Shard
Luciano Williamson – Kemal at Gallipoli
Andrew Wilson-Dickson – Rumpus
Tie Zhou – Snow Country
Thomas Whitcombe – that which lies in the mist
Tayla-Leigh Payne – A Clockwork Portrait
Zach Reading – Concert Prelude ‘The Evening Strait’
The BBC series of ‘Composition: Wales’ workshops held every spring go from strength to strength. In earlier years, there have been instances of scores inadequately constructed or conceived. I am pleased to report that this year all eight pieces given their world premières at this evening concert were fully professional in all aspects, even when some of them had undergone considerable revision during the rehearsal process spread over the preceding month. Credit must lie with the conductor B Tommy Anderson, whose ability to engage with the music was so infectious, as well as the composers Huw Watkins and Lynne Plowman who oversaw the mentoring process. Credit is also due the orchestra themselves, for their willingness to offer constructive suggestions to the composers, and for the heartfelt and committed manner in which they delivered music which was often of considerable difficulty.
Jasper Dommett and Luciano Williamson had both had works featured in workshops in previous years, and both testified in spoken introductory interviews to the value that they had derived from those experiences. Dommett’s Night Music consisted of outer sections in which a cor anglais solo featured prominently (he informed us that this had autobiographical significance, as a memory of his grandmother who had recently died), with positive echoes of the Swan of Tuonela; but the central section was highly violent by contrast.
Two years ago, in a review of the first performance of Luciano Williamson’s piano concerto, I had commented on his evident love for the sheer volume of sound that could be conjured from an orchestra. The programme for his Kemal at Gallipoli – based on an incident during the First World War – led me to expect a similarly strenuous piece of writing. But in the event the central section, describing the long night before an attack, had a sense of suppressed tension and an almost oriental atmosphere featuring tuned gongs (the composer, sensibly anticipating practical problems with these, indicated in the score that they could be substituted by muffled tubular bells, but such an expedient proved unnecessary today). The sudden return to the violence of battle at the end was then short and curtailed.
Stephen Goss is well-established as a composer. His descriptive piece The Shard was by comparison more conventional. It describes the effects of light on the glass surfaces of the famous London landmark. It was a surprise to note the tempo direction ‘Serene’ in the middle section of the piece, since serenity was a decided misnomer in a work where string triplet figurations proceeded without disturbance; but the work was a vivid cityscape and conjured up an atmosphere of bustle and life.
Whereas all the works in the concert till this point had featured programmatic elements, Rumpus by Andrew Wilson-Dickson was precisely ‘what it said on the tin’ – a riot of excitement and joy, with a very exciting ending as the music accelerated towards its conclusion. On the way, we encountered a woozy trombone solo which the composer in rehearsal suggested to the player should actually sound ‘drunken’; and his programme note stated that the piece concluded with a chorale-like passage from Bax’s Second Symphony; I must admit I failed to detect it amidst everything else that was going on around it.
Snow Country by Tie Zhou (a Chinese composer currently studying in Cardiff) stood rather apart from the other works in the concert. He stated both in his programme note and during his interview discussion that the piece was based upon a history of the Evenki culture. The plethora of various orchestral effects familiar from other avant-garde pieces certainly suggested that individual incidents were being depicted – his note referred to ‘hunting, suffering, sacrifice’ – but the lack of any formal structure or thematic framework left the listener somewhat at a loss in attempts to engage with the music. We were told that the piece had been shortened during the workshop process, and perhaps this process should have been extended further: the oscillating chords (rather like slowly chiming bells) in the orchestra in the final pages certainly went on for too long.
Thomas Whitcombe in his interview referred to his love for fantasy fiction. His piece that which lies in the mist (apart from its adherence to the surely now-passé fashion for the avoidance of capital letters) certainly proclaimed his enjoyment of ‘things that go bump in the night’ – he described them as ‘childish fears’ discovered in the ‘murkiness while walking in the hills’ – which suddenly emerged into the light of lurching nightmarish reality in the closing bars. Even his employment of major chords in the orchestra acquired a sinister overtone in this context. The results were thoroughly enjoyable, and the objective of the music was clearly audible.
That was less so with A Clockwork Portrait by Tayla-Leigh Payne, although she also described her music as taking ‘inspiration from the inner workings of one’s self and thoughts’. There was a sense of instability in the music, and at times I was almost reminded of the music provided for the critics in Strauss’s Heldenleben, which was not perhaps the image that the composer had in mind. Incidentally, like several of the other pieces in this concert, the work made prominent use of wooden instruments such as woodblocks and whips (slapsticks); they seemed to have become ‘flavour of the month’ this year.
The final work in the programme was The evening strait, a ‘concert prelude’ by Zach Reading. It had a positively Waltonian ring to it (I suggested this to the composer afterwards, and once he accepted that I intended the comparison to be complimentary, he accepted the parallel). The music certainly portrayed a sense of bustle and enjoyment, set within a natural setting of the contemplation of the Menai strait between the mainland of Wales and the island of Anglesey in a ‘darkened sea’. It made a very enjoyable conclusion to an enterprising concert.
It was purely a matter of coincidence, but the works featured this year all seemed to come very much from a similar mould. There were no works which made more than incidental use of serial techniques; there were no purely minimalist (or even minimalist-influenced) scores; and apart from Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s undetectable reference to Bax, there were no citations from other composers in the post-modern manner. (Oddly enough there were distant echoes of Bax, in particular The Garden of Fand and Tintagel, in the textures of the works by Thomas Whitcombe and by Zach Reading). Some years ago, I quoted a comment from a composition student at one of these workshops that some of these once-fashionable techniques were now ‘irredeemably old-fashioned’. The composers featured in this concert (six of the eight from the younger generation) would certainly appear to subscribe to that view.
The concert itself was particularly interesting in that it followed on from another concert of contemporary music given the previous Friday in the Cardiff Chapter Arts Centre by the UPROAR ensemble. I had intended to be there and report on the event but was foiled by yet another storm which brought transport to a halt throughout the South Wales area. Those who, like myself, missed the concert may note that the same programme – featuring three world premières of electro-acoustic pieces by Sarah Lianne Lewis, Bethan Morgan-Williams and Andrew Lewis – will be touring to Aberystwyth (13 March), Caernarfon (21 March), Bristol (25 April) and Montpellier (3 June). Strangely enough, the BBC have indicated that they intend to broadcast only ‘selections’ from the ‘Composition: Wales’ concert on 6 April, but in past years individual items have tended to appear (sometimes without prior warning) as part of the orchestra’s afternoon schedules on Radio 3. I would certainly hope that the opportunity would be seized to give further exposure to the works on this programme.
Paul Corfield Godfrey