George Benjamin, at age 48, is one of the grand old men of British music. Considering a succession starting with Britten, and continuing with Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, and including Benjamin, one might consider that the tradition of rather young grand old men, all of them very fine performers as well as seriously talented and accomplished composers is a grand old British one. Benjamin is a really good conductor, and the BBC Symphony orchestra clearly respected him and worked hard for and with him. On Wednesday night the main event was one of his first big attention-getting pieces, and his first work for orchestra, written when he was 19, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which was being played for the third time at the Proms.
Ringed by the Flat Horizon is a twenty minute long movement whose title comes from The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot; like the section of the poem which contains that line, the piece evokes the gathering and eventual arrival of a thunderstorm, which although violent, is more threatening in its premonition and advent than in its final manifestation. Despite very effective sections featuring solos for ‘cello, bass clarinet, trumpet, and trombone, the concerns of the piece seem not to be so much with linear aspects as in moving blocks of sound, and in orchestration, which in this case is sumptuous and very assured and masterly. (Who knew that three flutes in union in the lower register would balance in volume and timbre a solo trombone in its high register?–he did, I guess, since he did it. The better question, I guess, is how did he know that.) It might be that it would have been better to just end the piece immediately after the short and violent storm rather than adding three or so minutes of aftermath (which to this listener seemed superfluous), but that sort of complaint is small potatoes beside the genuine accomplishment of the whole work.
Benjamin’s work is dedicated to his major teacher, Messiaen, and he opened the program with Messiaen’s L’Ascension. I had heard this before as an organ piece, but I didn’t know that the organ version, is, in fact, a transcription, made two years later, of this one for orchestra. It seems to me that the orchestral version is more effective; in any case it’s more enjoyable. The first movement is a solemn chorale for brass and woodwinds, the second, more lively, one also begins with winds, but introduces the strings, playing harmonics, to provide a sort of halo over the repetition of the beginning. The third movement, a sort of dancy scherzo is also sort of dumb; it ends with what I suppose is meant to be a fugue, but ends up as a block of undifferentiated lines. The last movement balances the wind chorale with a ecstatic chordal slow movement for strings.
The rest of the program consisted of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, with Carolin Widmann as soloist, and the Pavane pour une infante défunte and Boléro by Ravel, played without a pause for some reason (presumably just to avoid the time extra applause would take; there wasn’t anything particularly revelatory about hearing them connected.) I have to admit that the Stravinsky concerto is a piece that I’ve tried hard to like and have failed to do at every opportunity; I just don’t get it. I’m sure it’s my fault, but I don’t. This performance didn’t change anything for me. The performance of the Ravel, though, was very striking. The Pavane is in any case a lovely piece, but the orchestration is really wondrous in its beauty and transparency, which this particularly sensitive and impassioned performance certainly brought out. If Ravel didn’t say that Boléro was ten minutes of orchestration with no music, he probably should have done, although it takes a fair amount of some other kinds of compositional skills to keep something going for that long (which still isn’t to say there’s any music there). If one had to listen to ten minutes of only orchestration, one would certainly want to hear it as presented by the BBC Symphony in this concert. Their playing there, as everywhere else, was really devoted and really beautiful.