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More Proms–Turnage, Khan, Radio 6

Mark Anthony Turnage’s Frieze, performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, on August 11, and Nashit Kahn’s The Gate of the Moon, a concerto for sitar and orchestra, performed by Kahn himself with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by David Antherton, on August 12, both raise the question of how one in a new piece can meaningfully reference other music. Turnage’s work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society to celebrate the organization’s bicentennial and to be on the same program with their most famous and, probably, greatest commission, the Beethoven Ninth Symphony; this shorter work which is clearly modeled on the Beethoven in its general layout, is a sort of gloss in his own language on the older one. Kahn’s Concerto joins an orchestra of western instruments and a single Indian one and aims at joining their indigenous musical languages in a meaningful way as well.

The clearest reference to the Beethoven in Turnage’s piece is the very beginning: he starts with the very same notes that Beethoven begins with–an open fifth A and E. Over the course of two hundred years, of course, the meaning of this has changed. For Turnage, in a time where any notes go, it can be mysterious, as it is, but it can’t have the same sense of inchoateness that it had in a time when not having a third in a chord was noticeable and disconcertingly lacking in definition and identity. After an imposing slowish introduction, the first movement builds through a very elaborately realized two part textures to an explosive and assertive climax at its very end. The second movement also evokes the Beethoven in that it begins with a very striking rhythmic motive which is the main element of the movement; in this case the rhythm is a sort of swinging rat pack riff which has what its composer calls veiled menace. As the work continues it becomes much more about its own particular discourse and references to the Beethoven are less frequent. The slow movement is concerned with the initial presentation of an ethereal lyrical music in the very high register which becomes elaborated in texture and opens out in register building to blunt and forceful chords and ending with a reminiscence of the opening music. The last movement steers clear of any references to the Beethoven and is a relatively straightforward and very effective ebullient rhythmic finale. Frieze is an effective and efficient piece whose pacing is compelling and whose orchestration is masterful. One notices fairly early on, though, and keeps noticing as the piece goes on, how thin the texture is, mostly consisting of a “tune” and a bass most of the time, however cleverly the registral management of the top part may mask that fact momentarily.

The performance of the Turnage, although clean and clear and rhythmically accurate in all respects, nonetheless lacked a rhythmic shaping, tauntness, and forward moving propulsion which it could have used. The same thing could be said for the performance of the Beethoven which ended the concert. In the Beethoven the orchestra was joined by Codetta, the Irish Youth Chamber Choir, and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain who sang splendidly in the Beethoven and in Toward the Unknown Region by Vaughan Williams. Although they had a beautiful sound always, one missed occasionally a sort of depth of sound which older voices would have had.

Nishat Kahn’s challenge in The Gate of the Moon was to fuse western and Indian music, at least as he has experienced them. The note on the score states that it is “a commemoration of the treasures of western classical music that rings in my psyche and my soul…” Both the score’s note and the program note allude to western masters who have “taken an everlasting place” in Khan’s heart, without specifying who any of them might be. Furthermore, the program note says that the work, particularly the second movement, is Khan’s “ode to the Classical Western form.” The note on the score, which in a way is quite detailed about its scenario, if not its construction, never mentions the boy/girl story which is provided in the program notes. The program notes also do not ever mention Pete Stacey, who the score says, in small print, “orchestrated” the work, nor does either note give any explanation for the significance of the work’s title. Khan’s, or Khan and Stacey’s, concerto is in three movements and lasts about 40 minutes, so it is a sizable chunk of music. One of the most striking things about it is that it never changes key, which is an essential aspect of western classical forms and therefore brings up the question of exactly what it is about those forms that is meaningful to Khan, and by extension what it is about western music as a whole that has had such a powerful effect on his psyche. Alternatively the language of the work is very simply diatonic and its rhythmic vocabulary, for lack of a better work, is neither very complicated nor is it particularly varied. At one point in the work I found myself wondering, since it doesn’t do harmony exactly, in a western sense, anyway, and doesn’t modulate, what is it that’s interesting about Indian music. The answer I came up with was rhythm and texture. There is a evident concern to make the texture of the piece interesting and to articulate sections by varying it; whether this is considered an aspect of western classical music or of Indian music, I am not sure. The general effect of the work is not at all unpleasant, and, although it is of some considerable length, neither did this listener feel that it had ever egregiously outstayed its welcome. But in the end rather than feeling that The Gate of the Moon had celebrated how, as Khan’s note in the score says, “our great musical cultures in the present day has (sic) hence imbibed these wonderful musical influences and has enriched us in various ways…” I had was left with the sense that it had merely dumbed down the most immediately perceivable aspect of both musics and presented them in the least challenging way possible, calling that evidence of “this harmonious aspect of musical life.” That Khan is a master of his instrument was never in doubt. It was very striking how very beautifully and sympathetically the BBC National Orchestra of Wales played with him in the work. Their playing was, in fact evidence of the sort of harmonious interaction of musical cultures that Khan wrote about. They and Atherton gave further evidence of this when in the second half they gave the most astoundingly beautiful and moving performance of the Vaughan Williams London Symphony.

Being merely a visiting American, the significance of Radio 6, in fact what it is at all, is lost on me. That it programs some kind of progressive/indie leaning pop/rock music became more and more clear to me over the course of the late night Prom that followed the concert with the Khan concerto, which was presided over by Radio 6 presenter Steve Lamacq and Radio 3 personality Tom Service and included performers Laura Marling, Cerys Matthews, Anne Stéphany, the celebrated (apparently) band The Stranglers, and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, and was another example of diverse musics coming together. The concert began and ended with the Stranglers, joined by the London Sinfonietta, in arrangements of some of their greatest hits by Anna Meredith. In between were performances by Matthews and Marling, alternating with magisterial performances by members of the London Sinfonietta or Ionization by Varese, O King by Berio, Principa by Steve Martland, and O-Mega by Xenakis. In every case where Radio 6 performers joined the Sinfonietta, they were amplified at a level that made the Sinfonietta inaudiable. I never understand why in such situations much amplification, or any, is necessary. But in any case, harmony, interaction, and mutual respect reigned, and the rather large audience was high spirited and enthusiastic.

All the Radio 3 Broadcasts are available for a week on the BBC iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/radio/bbc_radio_three). They’re rebroadcast shortly after than and those are also available for a week.