BBC National Orchestra of Wales: four premieres in one evening

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC NOW – NOW!: Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jordan de Souza (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 26.1.2024. (PCG)

Jordan de Souza

Gavin HigginsSarabande (world première)
James MacMillanHer tears fell with the dews at even (UK première)
Ross EdwardsChorale and Ecstatic Dance (UK première)
Anna WhitcombeAnd the skies became vermilion
Tan Dun – Trombone Concerto ‘Three Muses in Video Game’ (UK première)

Let me first thank the BBC management in the matter of the broadside in my review of the concert two weeks ago. They made it happen: a printed programme for the audience at this truly ground-breaking concert, described as ‘available for those without smartphones’. I remain sceptical about the notion that digital programmes solve budgetary constraints on productions in conventional formats. One should severely discourage anything which entices an audience to switch on electronic devices during a concert. The online programmes available for print before the concert are also extravagant and cumbersome (twenty full-colour A4 pages, including four pages of unwanted pre-publicity for forthcoming concerts). The return of the old-style A5 programmes is welcome for audiences – and for the composers of works which will inevitably be new to most listeners.

One last-minute inclusion was also welcome: Anna Whitcombe’s And the skies became vermilion, previously heard at the concluding concert of the 2023 ‘Composition: Wales’ event. I had complained that pieces premièred at those annual workshops tended to vanish after initial appearances. It was good, then, that one of them emerged in a later programme. The 2024 event appears to have been a victim of BBC economies, one hopes only a temporary measure, so it was in some ways also a consolation prize. This delightful miniature combines elements of pastoral and impressionist vignettes. The performance here appeared to be even better than before. There was more sustained lyricism in the passages which describe a rural sunset.

Similar in style was Gavin Higgins’s Sarabande, here receiving its first performance. Again, it combines impressionism with a contemplation of nature; that somewhat belies the formal dance structure the title implies. This handsome piece in ternary form builds to an excited climax before a magical conclusion with very effective use of the col legno tratto technique: the strings are played simultaneously with the hair and the wood of the bow. That can sound weird (as in Mahler’s First Symphony), but here it made for an attractive etiolated atmosphere.

It was not clear why Sir James MacMillan’s Her tears fell with the dews at even written in 2020 had to wait over three years for its UK première, but it was well worth the wait. The title derives from Tennyson’s early narrative poem Mariana, but the music does not appear to be programmatic. There only is a general mood of lamentation which revolves around a concertante solo flute within the orchestra, beautifully played here by Matthew Featherstone. Out of the almost hesitant introduction the flute emerges, gradually joined by the other woodwind instruments before a hefty brass interruption which the composer in his programme note described as a ‘primeval fanfare’. This might all sound dangerously sectional and fragmentary, but in fact the unity of mood is superbly well sustained. In a very beautiful central section, a unison lyrical melody unfolds in the strings over and through a delicate fabric of interweaving lines. The conclusion is beautiful, too. The initially excited flute at first challenges the rest of the orchestra and slowly subsides into quiet resignation. One would willingly look forward to hearing the work again. I have little doubt that the opportunity will quickly be forthcoming.

The performance of the Chorale and Ecstatic Dance, mounted to celebrate Ross Edwards’s eightieth birthday last year, has had to wait thirty years for its UK premiere! It is another absolute mystery why this should have been. One thinks that Classic FM would have taken up the cause of this music enthusiastically, at least in the days when they were willing to support adventurous new works by such composers as Górecki and Pärt.

The piece comprises two originally independent movements which do not really have anything very much in common but make an oddly contrasted diptych. The Chorale for strings alone has elements of Pärt in its still quiet contemplation, rather than the more emotional palette of Barber or Vaughan Williams. A nearer parallel could be found in the music of Alan Hovhaness, with its combination of modalism and south-east Asian coloration. This piece could surely challenge the popularity of a work like Skempton’s Lento. It was no surprise to learn from the programme that the Ecstatic Dance is one of Edwards’s ‘most popular compositions’. A delightful spring in its step recalls many of the best elements in light music, while showing a contrapuntal syncopation that continually manages to sidestep any suspicion of cliché. There were elements of Walton here, but also reminders of Edwards’s iconoclastic Australian predecessor Percy Grainger, and some quixotic percussion additions which certainly betrayed Asian influences. The orchestra clearly thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

So they did too in Tan Dun’s 2021 concerto for trombone. That was described in the advance publicity as a UK premiere, but the programme asserted it was a world premiere. Tan Dun wrote the concerto, in any event, specifically for the soloist here, the Dutch trombonist Jöegen van Rijen. He certainly made a meal of the often-humorous writing supplied to him. It was replete not only with the standard ‘trombone raspberries’ in the shape of glissandi (and familiar from composers as far back as Nielsen and Bartók) but some decidedly lavatorial flutter-tonguing and other techniques which emphasised the clown-like nature of the instrument. The whole mood of the concerto was light-hearted, and even the lyrical central movement had a certain insouciance which hardly rippled the surface of the music. The video game element was definitely present, but downplayed were the elements of orientalism and severity which have distinguished Tan Dun’s music in the past. At the same time, this is a work which demands attention – and further performances.

The playing throughout the concert was superb. The young Jordan de Souza clearly relished the opportunity to bring life to this new music. It was just a shame that the studio audience was small – less than half the capacity of the not-too-large auditorium. There is always a danger that new compositions become relegated to a sort of ghetto, so the music is played to a small coterie of enthusiasts and then never heard again. But there was sufficient variety here to satisfy the most fastidious palette, and plenty which was not only approachable but enjoyable on first hearing. It appears from the programme that the broadcast relay will be split between BBC 3 afternoon concerts and their New Music Show. That may well mean that those interested may have to keep their eyes peeled on the schedules. I hope that Jordan de Souza, too, will return soon with some more conventional fare.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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