BBC Composition: Wales 2023 has two outright winners

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Composition: Wales 2023: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 7.3.2023. (PCG)

Michael LewisLittle Ireland
Cameron Biles-LiddellCaer Drewyn (The Hill Fort)
Niamh O’DonnellFive Windows
Ian Morgan-WilliamsA Further Obscuration of Roger’s Masks
Jerry Tue ZhuoSea, Amoy!
Thomas WhitcombeAnd the Skies became Vermilion
Will FramptonEating the Sun
George OwenSeaguard

Over the past decade, I have regularly attended the annual BBC National Orchestra of Wales workshops which highlight a selection of scores mainly by young Welsh composers. The nature of the works has undergone a discernible shift, from self-consciously modern pieces into the realms of more immediately approachable music designed (perhaps equally consciously) to appeal to an audience at first hearing. The eight works selected this year, however, decidedly flouted that trend. It was a highly contrasted group of short pieces spanning a whole range of styles and idioms. The usual procedure in these workshops is to present a series of rehearsals open to the public, at which composers are mentored through revisions to their originally submitted manuscripts before a final concert a few weeks later. I was unable to attend any rehearsals this year, but BBC assisted me enormously by providing me in advance with copies of the original scores. It was interesting to note that in concert performance some of the scores showed considerably greater evidence of amendment and revision than other. In any event, only one of the scores had highlighted any real need for corrections and clarifications of the notes as originally written.

I have noted in the past that the remit of Composition: Wales has always been somewhat vaguely focused. It seeks to comprise both the work of students and of well-established composers in search of performance opportunities. This year, seven scores came from either recent graduates (including some still at college) or relative newcomers to orchestral writing whose previous experience had been in various other fields including electronic and pop music. What one might term the older generation was only represented by Ian Morgan-Williams, who had recently retired to Wales to pursue composition after a lengthy career as a teacher. Ironically enough, it was his score which came the closest to conscious modernism in the programme, although thankfully this was well leavened by a sense of humour deriving from memories of his artist friend Roger Cowen whose work had inspired A further obscuration of Roger’s masks. There was a plentiful supply of wind and brass gurgles, as well as startling and violent juxtapositions between music of extreme volume and quietness. The work was finely focused enough for none of these well-trusted techniques of evoking a sense of fun to over-extend their welcome.

What was even more startling was the increasing tendency of the seven younger composers to ‘row back’ from the more extreme elements of avant-garde techniques. Fully four of the scores reverted to the old-fashioned system of notation where transposing instruments are shown at the pitch required by the players rather than the reader of the scores. That is an example of practicality overcoming the academic demonstration of pitch relationships. Indeed, in many of the performances the avant-garde elements became part of the texture rather than the whole reason for existence. The evidence of modernity that could be seen in the scores was subsumed into a more complete and satisfactory whole. Two of the scores actually revived the system of key signatures, which had seemingly passed into almost total demise in the field of classical music from the 1950s onwards with the abandonment of tonality.

The first of these began the concert. Michael Lewis’s Little Ireland is a short series of vignettes which depict the area of Cardiff where Irish had settled in the nineteenth century. The luxuriant opening string chords with their high trumpet obligato evoked echoes of Alan Hovhaness. The rich Irish folk melody which followed was similarly beautiful, to the extent that I found myself wishing that the slow process of development could have been prolonged. Instead, we were treated to a series of more light-hearted episodes where the Irish dance rhythms evoked Irish composers such as Séan O Riada or even Hamilton Harty, very effective in themselves but rather short-breathed by comparison with the more lyrical music that surrounded them. Perhaps there were two pieces of music here, both beautiful in their own right but subsisting rather uneasily together in such a short duration. (The BBC rules stipulate that submitted compositions should not exceed ten minutes.)

Cameron Biles-Loddell’s Caer Drewyn (The Hill Fort) was similarly a descriptive piece of writing, this time a North Wales landscape of misty atmosphere from which the clangourous sounds of mediaeval combat and warfare slowly emerged. The descriptive writing was nicely judged, with plenty of variety; and the piece concluded with a rustling epilogue of ghostly sounds that evoked the impression of an epilogue to an unwritten Bax symphony.

Niamh O’Donnell’s score suggested the need for a spell-checker. One passage was marked ‘lushious’, and the composer could perhaps recognise that ‘unpredictable’ is not a helpful tempo marking. But the sounds she evoked in Five Windows, inspired by the art of Braques and Kandinsky, were often piquant and attractive. Again, though, the short duration of the constituent ‘movements’ allowed too little room for expansion.

This lack of breathing space was also evident in Jerry Yue Zhuo’s Sea, Amoy! It is a depiction of a Chinese seascape with all the grand expanse of a Hollywood epic or a natural history documentary. The score here at first gave a misleading impression of complexity. The clarity of the textural writing, however, and particularly the haunting effects of the string figurations were overwhelmingly impressive; and at no time did that suggest imitation of such masters of the seascape as Debussy or once again Bax. The suspicion of a conventional Hollywood ending – the sun setting over the horizon – was neatly subverted by a subtle downbeat conclusion; but in conversation with the composer after the concert I discovered that this was simply a link into a following section of music which had been pruned from the score. That conclusion really cries out to be reinstated, and the complete work ought to be given as a separate concert item.

Three years ago, I welcomed a score by Thomas Whitcombe. He now has finally discovered the capital letter, and entitled his new piece And the Skies became Vermilion. (The tiresome habit, derived originally from e e cummings, of removing the conventional capitals from titles was at one time threatening to become ubiquitous in an attempt to appear ‘modern’. May one dare to hope that it has finally run its course?) This too was a relatively conventional piece of tone-painting, a description of a vividly remembered sunset on a country walk. It was beautifully and atmospherically scored.

Will Frampton decribed Eating the Sun as a reference to ‘the process of photosynthesis’, less than helpful in approaching the music. Each composer had a brief interview with conductor Ryan Bancroft before their piece was played. Frampton’s verbal explanation helped convey a frozen stillness deriving from a series of melodic phrases, and the result was unexpectedly introspective and melodically demonstrative. By the way, the performing notes for the score again illustrated the need for spellchecking: the reference to ‘dimond noteheads’ just looked weird, although of course this may have been amended during the workshop process.

The final work on the programme, Seaguard by George Owen, was a real tour de force. It is a prelude and fugue on a theme that on the page looked suspiciously spiky (not quite twelve-tone) but proved a fertile breeding-ground for every fugal device known to Bach – and then some. It is dedicated to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Indeed, the rollicking depiction of rolling billows lacked nothing in sheer bravado, and even at one stage embraced a rumbustious delivery of the fugue theme on rampaging timpani (curiously enough omitted from the list of instruments at the head of the score!). The briefish prelude, and a short lyrical interlude, gave needed contrast before the fugue theme returned (via a passage of freefalling polyrhythms) with all the relentless of Dukas’s broomsticks in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the headlong plunges of Barber’s Essays for orchestra.

This piece called out for an immediate encore, although I suspect that the orchestra – helter-skeltering along under the enthusiastic baton of Ryan Bancroft – might have welcomed a breathing space. Next time they are looking for an encore to demonstrate their sheer virtuosity, they need look no further than to this whizzer of a piece. It would bring the house down at the Proms. And the orchestra also need to get Jerry Yue Zhuo to restore his seascape to its original full length, and programme that in a future concert.

One must not overlook the sterling work he orchestra gave to the workshops and to this final concert. The participating composers have often commented on valuable contributions of individual players in assisting the achievement of performance. Ryan Bancroft too seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself in the programme – and then still had sufficient energy to help out behind the bar afterwards! The audience, also fully appreciative, consisted of much more than just the usual suspects, composers’ family and friends. It had often been the case that works premièred in these workshops get a brief outing on BBC Radio 3 (often not even advertised in the schedules) and then are shelved. These scores deserve a better fate: BBC management, please note.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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