Vale of Glamorgan Festival opens with three orchestral premieres and a Grace Williams rarity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vale of Glamorgan 2022 Festival [1] – Opening Concert: Clare Hammond (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac van Steen (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 22.9.2022. (PCG)

Clare Hammond © Julie Kim

David Roche (b. 1990) – Waves of Love (2020-22, world première)
John Metcalf (b. 1946) – Calm (2005) from Three Miniatures, orchestrated by David Roche, (world première)
Huw Watkins (b. 1976) – Spring (2017)
Sarah Lianne Lewis (b. 1988) – Tourmaline (2022, world première)
Grace Williams (1906-1977) – Sinfonia concertante (1940-41)

It was a real joy to return to the Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. They were finally restored to their pre-pandemic seating positions, so they could achieve the full integration of sound, one of their strengths. It was also a real joy to welcome back the ever-enterprising Vale of Glamorgan Festival after two years of a shadowy online existence; and with no fewer than three works receiving world premieres. One thing I did miss was the Festival’s programme booklet. In the past, it had been a real treasury of information not only on the works presented but on the featured living composers. The revamped VoG website links to the composer’s own websites, but the convenience of having everything together is absent. The BBC’s own programmes for the opening concert did not appear until after the interval: they were mislaid on delivery at the Millennium Centre. That did not help appreciate music which by its very nature was totally unfamiliar. And even so some concerts remain without programme notes at all, at any rate at the time of writing.

Of the world premiere performances, David Roche’s Wave of Love had been some time in the arrival. The initial draft had been completed during the first pandemic lockdown; but the sheer profusion of notes proclaimed the enormous amount of compositional effort that had gone into the score. Not that this showed. The result was immediately attractive – one might even say catchy. A welter of contrasting ostinato rhythms surrounds a series of semi-chorale-like brass phrases, which however made themselves immediately ingratiating with a sort of sideways leer (like an engaging drunk who has invaded a party). These sidelong glissandi later transferred themselves to the strings, with even more hilarious effects. Only towards the end of the piece did the composer slam on the brakes to allow these melodies to emerge from the textures. The result was a piece of engaging charm, waves of love indeed.

John Metcalf’s brief movement Calm was presented in David Roche’s orchestration, which preserved much of the inner stillness prescribed by the title. There were only one or two places where I felt that solo lines given to the trumpet might have been better suited to a woodwind player. The music itself breathed a sublimity that was beautiful in the extreme.

Huw Watkins’s Spring was similarly enigmatically titled. Without a programme note, I was far from clear whether the description was of the season or of a water feature, although the opening rippling themes clearly identified it as one or the other. I discovered after the BBC booklets appeared after the interval that the work was a series of reflections prompted by the time of year. This served to explain not only the sometimes-disparate nature of the music itself (like a set of variations on a mood) but the often surprisingly astringency of some the harmonic and instrumental colours we heard. Unlike many of Watkins’s pieces, Spring did not come to an abrupt and unexpected conclusion in mid-phrase. Instead, we had a slow dissolve back into the original material, and that proved to be most satisfying.

The title of Sarah Lianne Lewis’s new work for string orchestra also went unexplained. In all the publicity prior to the concert, the piece was billed simply as ‘new work’. Apparently, tourmaline is a gemstone used therapeutically to relieve stress and to strengthen the immune system – just what is needed in these troubled times. And the piece did indeed serve these purposes. Miscellaneous avant-garde string techniques were cleverly and eclectically appropriated in an engaging and immediately attractive manner. One might actually observe that, like Roche’s piece, it was positively catchy. The composer herself described her intention to provide a “joyous sprint through an off-kilter landscape”, and this delineation of purpose was amply achieved. Now it has been baptised, this score is ready to make its way in the world; it should be taken up by adventurous string orchestras everywhere.

The BBC programme advised us that the concert was being recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3 for the New Music Show, and for Afternoon Concert, but gave no dates of these scheduled broadcasts. I would question the wisdom of separating out events in this fashion. It smacks too closely of the discredited old system whereby new music was banished to an isolated ghetto lest it alarm or scare away potential audiences. This is surely directly opposed to the whole ethos of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Its insistence on performing music by living composers has over the years borne fruit in the enthusiastic support of a body of listeners who are extremely willing to engage with new work; they demonstrate that they have confidence in the judgement and taste of those who are presenting these ‘novelties’ for their enlightenment.

Be that as it may, the policy of restricting performances to the music of living composers – only occasionally broken in the past when composers have recently died – was well and truly breached here by the appearance of Grace Williams’s Sinfonia concertante written over eighty years ago by a composer who died in 1977. Mind you, it had a decided novelty value because, with the solitary exception of a specially recorded 2006 radio broadcast (coincidentally enough with Huw Watkins as the soloist), this score had not been given in concert since 1947. I stand ready to be corrected in the often-tangled tale of Grace Williams’s performance history; in any case, Rhiannon Mathias supplied this information in the BBC programme.

The opening of the Sinfonia concertante may have indeed been the most trenchantly modern music in this concert, with a decidedly brusque nod in the direction of Prokofiev and Bartók at their most astringent. As with her Violin Concerto, it was also surprising to find Williams making prominent use of a full brass section (including three trombones, but only double woodwind). That has made the soloist’s work difficult in places where the challenge from the tutti was particularly forthright – Jac van Steen held nothing back. One suspects that in the 1940s this music would have been regarded as the height of modernity. It was only some way into the rhapsodic opening movement that the style seemed to settle down, and the ending finally reached some kind of catharsis. This led the way for a truly beautiful Poco lento where the finely spun lines achieved an almost Rachmaninovian kind of transcendence. But unlike the Russian master, Williams never allowed the bravura of display to overwhelm the music. This was really a Sinfonia concertante and not just a piano concerto. The Alla marcia finale built to a most satisfying climax, which made one wonder yet again at the composer’s apparent willingness to consign so many of her earlier works to oblivion.

As with so many British concertante works of that period, one wishes that pianists would occasionally schedule these pieces in programmes instead of the standard Russian warhorses we so regularly encounter in our concert halls. Claire Hammond may in places have succumbed to the orchestral onslaught in louder passages (the BBC broadcast will doubtless rectify the imbalance). Even so, she strove manfully to strike a blow for the music, and that should surely serve to establish for it at least a marginal place in the repertory. Given the superlative quality of the recent revivals by this orchestra of Grace Williams’s scores – not only the Violin Concerto, but the Sea Sketches and Penillion – we might even perhaps hope for a recording.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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