The Proms: Volans, Larcher, Dutilleux, and Stravinsky
On August 22, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Barry Douglas, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, presented the first performance of Kevin Volans’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which was a BBC Commission. Volans is quite proud of his method of composition, which he refers to as ‘anti-conceptual.’ What he means by this is that he does not think about what a piece will do until he starts it, and every day he starts at the point he stopped the day before, without reordering anything; he doesn’t say whether or not he revises. One assumes not. This is a little like a practice of Virgil Thomson’s, which he referred to as ‘the discipline of spontaneity;’ Thomson, I think, mainly did it in his portraits, which were two- or three-minute-long pieces done in one sitting (and sometime revised later). In Volans case it’s probably more like an extreme reaction against what is often called ‘pre-composition,’ and therefore, a lot of modernists practices (and probably a lot of stuff done by minimalists who do process music as well), and, for me, anyway, it doesn’t work so well in a piece that’s twenty minutes long. In the case of this piece, one is left with a feeling of a sort of flat and haphazard continuity which could be described in the words of one of the characters in The History Boys by Alan Bennet, who says that history is ‘just one fucking thing after another.’ In fact the sound of the piece is polished and attractive and arresting, full of nice, and, mostly, interesting music; it just goes on a little too long some of the time, and, no surprise, its progress seems sort of random and unconsidered. The performance was also polished, colorful, attractive, and arresting.
A few days earlier, August 18, Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley, joined by Christof Dienz, Luka Jukart, Martin Brandlmayr, Thomas Larcher, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov gave the first performance of Larcher’s Concerto for Violin, ‘Cello, and Orchestra. The orchestra for the piece includes a concertino group of electric zither, accordion, percussion, and prepared piano which provides a good deal of instrumental color in the work, and the function of the orchestra seemed to be that of a sort of amplifier for the smaller group, taking up the music and expanding on it both in terms of material and of decibels. On top of this, the violin and ‘cello often spun longer singing lines and sometimes shorter more agitated ‘riffs’ which were largely arpeggios. These were repeatedly the same in term both of the shape and the range of the lines, and the sameness of the solo parts left a sense of frustrating lack of motion and progress and formal staticness which I think was not intended. There are two movements, the first more expansive and varied, tempo wise, at least, and the second shorter and more restrained, with the solo parts some what chorale like, and suggesting a more traditionally tonal language. The work was both intriguing and appealing, and at the same time, due to the sameness of the shape of the main lines, somewhat frustrating. The performance was lively, concentrated, and serious and had a heartfelt quality.
On August 23 Leonidas Kavkos and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, performed L’arbe des songes by Henri Dutilleux, a violin concerto which was written in 1980 for Isaac Stern. The work is in four movements, but there are also three interludes after the first three movements, all of them played without a break. The beginnings of the interludes are marked by a sort of gamelan-like music which Dutilleux referred to as ‘tinkling’ bells, played by tubular bells, vibraphone, piano/celesta, harp, and crotales. Perhaps the most striking parts are the first movement which features long singing lines in the violin, the third movement, in which the violin is joined in a lyric duet by the oboe d’amore, and the third interlude which is a free sort of tuning up episode in the orchestra. The whole work is very singing, atmospheric, and full of beautiful instrumental textures and colors. It seemed to me to be the best of the Dutilleux pieces that I’ve heard.
On the next night the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, conducted by Colin Davis, performed the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. Probably the most important work of his early American years, the Symphony is one work which its composer, who otherwise was insistent that music was powerless to express anything at all, was eager to present as a depiction of war time tensions. He said that there were sections related to sequences in documentary films about scorched-earth tactics in the Sino-Japanese War and to newsreels and documentaries of goose-stepping soldiers, etc. It is certainly a muscular piece full of lots of rhythmic energy, harmonic propulsion, and a sort of cinematographic sweep. Little of this was realized in this performance, which was rhythmically slack and, in terms of its formal shaping, apparently completely clueless. Elliott Carter wrote of hearing Stravinsky play at gatherings of Boulanger’s students in Paris; he said that Stravinsky seemed to play every note with an intense rhythmic energy and intention, making each one a special ‘Stravinsky’ note. That was exactly the quality that was completely lacking here.