The BBC marked the beginning day of the Beijing Olympics by offering the first performance of Olympic Fire, commissioned for the occasion from Chen Yi. All of Chen’s music uses Western modernist practices to evoke her native culture, but Olympic Fire deals even more directly in Chinese materials, using folksongs both from the predominant Han Chinese and from minority Chinese ethnic groups as well (Chen keeps to the Chinese government party line by considering Tibetans among those Chinese ethnic minorities), and imitating the sounds of Chinese instruments, particularly the lusheng (described by Chen as a “mouth pipe-organ”). Olympic Fire begins with enormous energy and unrelenting febrile motion and considerable instrumental brilliance featuring the brass and the xylophone. The initial ebullient activity continues for quite a while, to be interrupted by a slightly slower high ostinato music with a less thick texture, evoking bird calls and still featuring the xylophone, which turns out to be an accompaniment to longer lyrical tunes in the lower registers.
The opening celebratory activity is eventually regained, with the layering of different musics over a repeated rhythmic figures. The music goes driving headlong into a furiously explosive timpani cadenza which leads to a roaring ending. The performance, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, matched the exuberance of the music.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Proms is commemorating it by offering a survey of his music. In fact, the very day of his death, August 26 is to be marked with an all Vaughan Williams concert. British composers used to regard Vaughan Williams with a certain amount of embarrassment, just as American composers, two or three decades ago, used to regard Copland. Americans composers certainly got over it with Copland–maybe went a little too far in the other direction, in fact–I’m not sure whether the Brits have yet made their piece with Vaughan Williams. The second half of the concert which began with the Chen, contained two big pieces by Vaughan Williams, the Sixth Symphony and Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ for strings and harp. ‘Divies and Lazarus’ is an English folk song which Vaughan Williams seems to have loved it; he included it in the England Hymnal as a hymn tune called Kingsfold. He also seems to have liked this piece, since he wanted it to be played at his funeral. Much is made of the fact that the Dives and Lazarus piece is called ‘Variants of’ rather than ‘Variations on’ the tune. The term was used by folk song collectors, of whom Vaughan Williams was one, in describing apparently different tunes that turned out to be really different versions of the same tune. The implications of the titles most immediately, in this case, is than rather dealing with the tune, as classical variations would, by developing it by ever increasing elaboration, here the process involves more a presentation of the tune in different versions. On the larger scale it means that rather than having a series of short sections with similar structure, there is a less articulated, more fluid, meditative, and continuous continuity.
The Sixth Symphony is in Vaughan Williams late, more or less polytonal–or bitonal, anyway–style. Maybe the most striking aspect of it is its last movement, which is very soft throughout. It also has, in its scherzo, a technological feat: it’s very hard to orchestrate octaves; usually they just disappear into the texture, but here there are bunches of clunky galumphing octaves. Slatkin is something of a Vaughan Williams champion, but it was a little hard to tell from this performance, which wasn’t particularly idiomatic and seemed mostly just complacent. The last movement was most of the time not soft enough to have the sort of post apocalyptic effect it should have had; earlier movements lacked rhythmic vigor and drive.
A few days later another installment of the Vaughan Williams survey, his Piano Concerto, was offered by pianist Ashley Wass and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. The piano concerto has always been a problematic piece. Vaughan Williams worked it over a time or two after its first performances, and even did a version of it for two pianos. Neither has been performed much. The biggest problem with the work is that Vaughan Williams, who was a violinist and organist, seems not to have had any clue about how to write effectively for the piano. The problem is immediately apparent at the very beginning of the piece, where the piano has masses of notes right in the middle of the piano, none of which are heard at all over the full orchestra. That tendency to have many too many notes in the solo part arranged where they don’t have any resonance is probably a fatal problem, but not the only one. The last movement is a very chromatic fugue whose tune then becomes a waltz, but the waltz is a little too short and leads to a rather fuzzy coda; it’s clear that he just couldn’t figure out how to get out of the movement and end things. I think this must be the only piano concerto with an organ part, which may be another manifestation of the problem. Although there is a fair amount of very nice music in the piece, especially in the slow movement, the piece seems finally to be unsalvageable. Sometimes pieces don’t get performed much for good reasons.