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.

8 thoughts on “The Proms: Volans, Larcher, Dutilleux, and Stravinsky”
  1. Meanwhile, a great blogspot called “5 against 4” (http://5-against-4.blogspot.com/) has posted some of the moments from this past Proms. I have heard some of these performances, and the ones that have really stood out for me were the Holloway Concerto (although, granted, it seemed like he stole some material from Strauss’s “Don Quixote”), Fitkin “Cello Concerto (which is quite a departure from his “rock sounding” works and leaning more toward Feldman’s “Cello & Orchestra in many parts), the two Dusapin works, and the Volans Piano Concerto. Naturally, any new Elliott Carter is always welcome for me. (Too bad, though, he did not post “Music for 18 Musicians”; it was very good!)

  2. … while Sofia Gubaidulina and Toshio Hosokawa both tend to endow the accordian with a symbolic persona. Hence, according to his publisher’s note, in Hosokawa’s “In die Tiefe der Zeit”, the cello represents the male principle and the accordion the female and the surrounding cosmos is reflected in the form of air and clouds by the strings. He has a 9/11 memorial work for shakuhachi and orchestra premiering this Sunday in Torino, Italy.

    I am happy to note that the local embarrassment — Classical WETA-FM — will broadcast Robert Moran’s “Trinity Requiem” this Sunday night at 9 PM (four days after its official live world premiere), along with Adams’s “Transmigration of Souls” and something called “Agnus Dei” by Samuel Barber.

    I’m still working on them to broadcast regularly the likes of Dutilleux, Volans, Larcher, Boesmans, Ruder, Keuris, Pintscher, Gubaidulina, and Hosokowas as they did a generation ago when they broadcast weekly orchestral tapes from the European Broadcast Union.

    (Last night, I found an old program note from the early 1970s showing Antal Dorati leading the National Symphony Orchestra in performances of Penderecki’s Saint Luke Passion and Roberto Gerhard’s The Plague in the same month!)

  3. Rodney,

    I also love your reviews, I look forward to Proms just to read what you have to say about the festival.

    If you are looking for interesting accordion music, I recommend Poul Ruder’s “Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” for string 4tet and accordion.

  4. I think that Philippe Boesmans’s Wintermärchen has a striking and memorable accordion part. I heard it at the Odeon (in Vienna).

  5. I heard Le temps l’horloge in Boston. I thought it was good. It made striking use of the accordion.

  6. Thank you for all of these reviews. They are appreciated.

    I agree with you that ”L’arbe des songes” is one of Henri Dutilleux’s best scores, along with his cello concerto “Tout un monde lointain . . .” which Rostrapovich championed repeatedly when he was Washington’s orchestral music director.

    I found Dutilleux’s more recent song cycle “Correspondences” (settings of letters of Van Gogh to his brother Theo and Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Rostropovich and his wife) more puzzling, and while I heard Valdine Anderson sing it with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil in San Francisco (when dedicatee Dawn Upshaw was seriously ill); and Dawn sing it with Rostrapovich and the NSO five years ago shortly before Rostrapovich’s passing and the global economic contraction; perhaps unfortunately I don’t have a strong positive memory of the work.

    I missed the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Levine, performances of Dutilleux’s even more recent song-cycle for Renee Fleming, “Le temps l’horloge” (based upon two poems — by Robert Desnos and Charles Baudelaire) , which was apparently broadcast nationally, but not on musically repressive vis a vis contemporary classical music, Classical WETA-FM.

    Speaking of which, I hope that Classical WETA-FM, which is up for license renewal from the F.C.C. in a couple of months time, gets an earful from the Commission for its neglect of virtually all American classical music, as well as contemporary classical music. I don’t see how the station deserves re-licensing as a public radio station in its current incarnation. (Imagine a public television station featuring no American-themed or contemporary-themed programming whatsoever.)

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