BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival: Two Concerts

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff

15 May 2013:
Conductor: Richard Baker / Percussion: Julian Warburton
Works by Sebastian Currier / Mark Bowden / Qigang Chen

18 May 2013:
Conductor: Garry Walker / Cello: Raphael Wallfisch
Works by: Graham Fitkin / Justė Janulytė
This year, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival was able to add a second concert to its customary single programme from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, thanks to a welcome increase in funding. From an audience viewpoint, the benefits felt greater even than a doubling of BBC NOW contribution, in that the opportunity was given thereby to hear the orchestra play contemporary music under two different conductors at the same venue just days apart, in matched, twin programmes – at a point when the orchestra’s standard of playing is achieving consistent excellence.

The concerts focused in turn on Sebastian Currier and Graham Fitkin, both Featured Composers in 2013. On May 15, the baton was taken up by the superlative Richard Baker for a programme which combined two pieces by Currier – a UK and European premiere respectively – with a world concert premiere by Mark Bowden, BBC NOW Resident Composer, and a further piece by Qigang Chen, following the success of his introduction to Vale Festival audiences in 2012.

Currier’s music has been a revelation this year and, hopefully, he will begin to see the larger audience he deserves here in Britain, to join that of his native USA and elsewhere. The pieces performed tonight were a terrific showcase of BBC NOW at its hugely enjoyable, virtuosic best. The opening Microsymph was a model of compressed symphonic form, with a dazzling array of colours, ideas and sounds; not one of which felt ill-judged or extraneous to Currier’s purpose – which impressive feat was repeated in the second half’s Quanta. Whereas Microsymph whirled through a genuine five movement symphony in just ten minutes, complete with spectral waltzes, radiant adagio and bravura fanfares intercut by a ticking clock motif (‘a bit like Leonard Bernstein on speed’ according to one enthralled audience member), Quanta took concision to new heights, as it were, in its succession of epigrammatic fragments inspired by the composer’s travels in China and, specifically, by written Chinese characters. The architecture of this latter piece, too, showed real brilliance as myriad tiny, contrasting fragments, separated by silent pauses, gradually coalesced into a larger form. Both pieces were adroit and witty in a refreshingly unselfconscious way and were, above all, distinguished by a strongly sophisticated sense of harmony that seems all too rare in contemporary music.

Bowden’s Heartland Percussion Concerto (commissioned as a ballet score for the National Dance Company of Wales, with choreography by Eleesha Drennan), was inspired by a disquieting geopolitical idea, submitted in an article to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, that any totalitarian regime which came to command a posited ‘Heartland’ linking Europe, Asia and Africa would come to dominate the world. What relation this concept had to Bowden’s musical material wasn’t entirely clear, but the work was full of violence and brio in its multi-layered harmonies and timbres, with a constant, surging to-and-fro between the solo percussionist (the eminently capable Julian Warburton) and orchestra. Exchanges with the orchestral percussion in particular made imaginative use of the acoustic orchestral space, and Warburton’s forward-placed ranks of instruments made for a visually as well as aurally dramatic experience. Starting with soft sounds from maracas, the piece ebbed and flowed through three sections, featuring two cadenzas for the soloist, the highlight being passages for aluphone amongst the mainly tuned percussion; a specially-made instrument of hand-moulded aluminium bells with a singular, sharp resonance. Generally, the textures were engagingly extrovert, if a little over-written and unrefined in places, but full of what seems to be Bowden’s trademark, and ultimately good-natured, boisterousness.

The final piece on tonight’s programme was Enchantements oubliés by the Chinese composer Qigang Chen, providing, in part, a cultural link with Currier’s Quanta. But here, the inspiration was as much French as Chinese, in keeping with Chen’s sometime Parisian base, with washes of impressionistic colour, yearning romantic melodies and liberal use of whole-tone scales. Chen’s programme note describes his preoccupation with ‘the essence of beauty’ and a corresponding desire, in this piece, to set himself free from formal constraints in order to let the music ‘lead me to wherever it seemed willing to go’. Though clearly heart-felt, however, the piece lacked substance overall, with some frankly trite gestures in places, despite Baker’s best efforts to phrase with emphasis and clear direction. Perhaps the piece would have been better served by being placed earlier in the programme; at any rate, Currier would have made a more captivating finale to an otherwise gripping concert which – somewhat unnecessarily – wafted to a conclusion.

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BBC NOW were back to re-gather the intensity three days later on May 18; this time under the less outwardly bold, but no less sensitive or commanding baton of Garry Walker, for a much anticipated programme of Fitkin and the Lithuanian composer Justė Janulytė. Tonight, there was an unannounced change of programme order, which had the audience scrabbling for their programmes, but which worked well in placing Fitkin’s beautifully enigmatic Cello Concerto first and his more ebullient ballet score Mindset last, to bring this years Festival to a rousing and celebratory conclusion.

The Cello Concerto was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and premiered by Yo-Yo Ma at the Proms in 2011 to great acclaim, and it was a treat to hear it played in Cardiff by BBC NOW and another, distinguished – if less overtly warm – soloist, Raphael Wallfisch. Those familiar with what Fitkin himself describes as his usually ‘note-crammed brazenly loud works’ would perhaps be surprised at the restraint and slow, unwinding thoughtfulness of this music. A pared-down orchestration ensures that the solo cello is never acoustically swallowed by the ensemble, but follows its own path, all the time resisting the ‘pull’ of the orchestra’s soundworld. The long, sustained bowing that sets the piece in motion also sets the contemplative but impassioned tone and acts as a pivot around which the strings, then woodwind, quietly unfurl an exquisite series of chords. In turn, this gives way to passages of gently rocking material, gradually building to tutti chords about halfway into the piece, and then on to the work’s climax about three-quarters of the way through. Points at which the cello and orchestra come together include repeated cadential figures which, however, never quite resolve, and so we are left with the still, separate voices, having journeyed, on this occasion, through a poignant and often ravishing performance from soloist and orchestra alike.

Following the Concerto came Janulytė’s Elongation of Nights; an extraordinary work for chamber string orchestra, in which layers of elongated sounds are stretched into a kind of infinity as an expression of lengthening days and shortening nights with the changing seasons. Janulytė was born in 1982 and has studied in Milan. Most of her works are written for ‘monochromatic’ ensembles, such as four flutes and so on. Here, though, the result is far from monochrome, as she gives each of the twenty-one players their own part, comprising sustained notes which alternately pulse in loudening or softening waves. The effect – based harmonically upon the natural tuning of stringed instruments in fifths – is to create an intricate and richly nuanced, other-worldly web of sound. Tonight, that highly evocative soundweb was simply – and magically – realised by Walker and the BBC NOW strings.

Fitkin’s Mindset was the sole piece in a short but satisfying second half. It was commissioned by the Royal Ballet and first performed, again to just acclaim, at Covent Garden in 2010, with choreography by Jonathan Watkins. Like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring*, to which the piece owes a clear stylistic debt, it also makes for a dynamic concert item away from the dance stage, stuffed full of flamboyant musical ‘characters’ and vivid conversations. Again, cyclical cadences are a feature but, here, operating within Fitkin’s more familiar driving, funky style, with liquid, repeated figures boiling to an ecstatic head of steam. One of the most impressive aspects of Fitkin’s music is his ability to move from section to contrasting section completely seamlessly; rarely dropping momentum and often utilising vertical and horizontal layers of sound. Mindset is full of quite wonderful such transitions as well as bursts of frantic colour and episodes of rollicking off-beat bravura, beautifully paced by Walker and an exceptional BBC NOW. It was a fabulous way to end a highly successful concert and Festival.

* last Wednesday, May 29, was the one-hundredth anniversary of the Rite of Spring’s notorious first performance in Paris.