Raymond Yiu’s Symphony, a sort of Mahlerian song-cycle, which received its first performance on the Prom on August 25 by counter-tenor Andrew Watts and the BBC Symphony conducted by Edward Gardner, is a big piece, ambitiously conceived and handsomely realized. It is some indication of its success that most of the criticism one might have of the piece have to do with appealing aspects of it which one wants more of. It is well timed and beautifully orchestrated and consistently engaging, and, in its final moments particularly beautiful and rather moving, and it very successfully sustains an arc of 26 minutes length. There is some indirection about the relationship of its texts to each other and to the ostensible subject of the whole, which is AIDS. Exactly what about AIDS is a little hard to determine–one ends up with having to say that it has something to do with AIDS, but without being able to say exactly what. The introductory first movement’s Whitman text proclaims strong music that celebrates victors and “conquer’d and slain” alike. The second, instrumental scherzo’s title ‘Strong With Cadence Multiply Song” is a line from Basil Bunting (which the program notes says was significant for the whole work, somehow, but it’s hard to tell exactly how, since we were never given it, or an explanation for its significance), the third movement sets a poem by Cavafy which invokes “beloved sensation,” aka sex, presumably. The fourth and longest movement sets a poem by Thom Gunn describing an encounter of the poet with two other men in a gay bar, combining thoughts and deeds of death and the sexual, and drugs. The final serene movement, setting Donne, celebrates the triumph of love and fidelity over destruction and decay. So the texts highlight different aspects of the subject, as it were throwing light on it from different angles at the periphery , without having a single sustained argument. There are evocations in the second and fourth movements of pop music of the seventies. Whether the fourth movement could really be said to be a “seventies-style disco song”, as Yiu described it, is debatable, but it probably comes close enough; it is in this movement that the use of the counter-tenor to reference such falsetto pop singers as Barry Gibb, Jackie Jackson, and Sylvester is most apparent. For this listener, as strong as the piece is, it would have been even more successful and more moving had it had more grit in it–a little more harshness now and then in the sound–and greater harmonic intensity in its climatic moments. The implications of the treatment of the texts at the beginning–with the singer’s stuttering drawing out of the sibliants of the words “song” and “strong” which are juggled momentaily, were never realized, since that manner of treating text is abandoned for a more traditional, and very masterly, manner of setting the words. But the reservations one might have are small in view of the work’s achievement and of the mastery involved in its execution. Both Andrew Watts’s singing and the orchestras playing was direct and vivid and had clearly been prepared with great dedication. Yiu’s Symphony was preceded on the program by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, another serious and highly accomplished work by a composer who was around thirty. The second half included the Nielsen Flute Concerto, with Emily Benon, soloist, and the Janáček Sinfonietta, both of which were played with considerable elegance and charm. The whole concert was a great pleasure.
The Prom on August 27, presented by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, contained two first performances. The first, preSage by Ørjan Matre, although billed as a world premier, was actually a second version of a piece originally commissioned by the Oslo Philharmonic to both commemorate the centennial of The Rite of Spring and to mark Vasily Petrenko’s becoming the orchestra’s Principal Conductor. Based on material derived from the section of the ballet called ‘The Sage,’ Matre’s work is a sort of expansion over twelve minutes of a split second before the beginning of that music, with some hints of reminisces of other places in the ballet also included. The recognizability of the material makes this effect possible. The music, which throbs and shimmers and rings many changes of instrumental color while evoking that moment of the ballet, is appealing and engaging, and would be even a little more so were it a little shorter, but it still doesn’t outstay its welcome. I would be happy to hear it again, and to hear more of Matre’s music.
The second premiere on the concert was of Bergen’s Bonfire by Alissa Firsova. Firsova is the child of two Russian composers who defected from the Soviet Union to the UK in 1991, and she grew up and was trained in England, where she has a career both as a composer and pianist. Bergen’s Bonfire is a depiction of an apocalyptic dream of the composer’s. Her retelling of the dream in her note, involving Norse mythology and the end of the old world and the birth of a new, doesn’t actually include anything about a bonfire, so the reason for the title is a little unclear. The work is about ten minutes long, in three sections, the first describing the Twilight of the Gods, with themes for the sun, the moon, and the stars; the second depicts the composer’s walk around Mount Floyen, one of the mountains surrounding Berger, and the third shows a new age of peace and happiness and is based on a piece the composer wrote when she was eight years old. The beginning of the work is very strong and compelling (and is much stronger than any of the music included in the Composer Portrait concert of her music which had been given earlier in the afternoon), and all goes well for a while, until the third section arrives. At that point things start to go badly wrong. For one thing it’s much longer than it should be in relationship to the first two sections, but in addition it slides into a music of simply astounding banality, which would make a second or third tier Hollywood composer of the 30s or 40s blush. One can believe that it was written by a precocious eight year old. Sometimes when you’re presented with somebody’s ideas of the sublime and utopian it can be like having them share their dreams or their sexual fantasies with you–just a little too much information which, when you’ve received it, you’d rather they hadn’t shared it with you to begin with, and which you can’t unhear.
The concert concluded with a remarkably wonderful performance of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which had enormous clarity and nuance, rock solid ensemble and rhythm, and enormous drama and character. It was moving and memorable.
Concurrent with the Proms, the BBC sponsors various workshops and events for pre-college composers under the general title of Inspire. I observed on August 21 an impressive Inspire session run by Paul Griffiths (this is not the musicologist and writer on modern music–this Paul Griffiths is a composer, improviser, and “music educationalist” on the faculty of the Guildhall School of Music) which dealt with collaborative composition. Led by Griffiths and assisting professional musicians, about two dozen performing composers created over the morning a joint composition. There is also every year a competition with a concert of the winning works. For the last several years the concert has been presented by the Aurora Orchestra and its music director and principal conductor, Nicholas Collon. This summer’s concert happened in the afternoon of August 28. The format is never quite the same: there is a varying amount of talking (over the years this has been, mercifully, reduced), and the number of works played changes. Past concerts have presented work by the winners and the highly commended composers. This year’s concert only included the five winning works, which were Fantasia for Strings by Matthew Kelley (b.1999), Mechanical Passion by Tammas Slater (b.2000), After Death by Toby Hession (b,1997), The Complications of Life in an Enclosed Space by Daniel Penney (1999) and Like the Wind by Finnlay Stafford (b.1998). All of the works were lively and interesting and were performed with serious care and understanding by the excellent performers. It seemed short; one wanted to hear at least some of works the ten highly commended composers as well.
These concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer: Yiu:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06708yz (the whole concert, the Yiu only at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030rzhk), the Matre and Firsova: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06709tq (the whole concert; Matre only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030yxs6, Firsova only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030z9md).