Dylan Thomas centenary BBC National Orchestra of Wales

BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Dylan Thomas Centenary

Steph Powers reviews the BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert in honor of the Dylan Thomas centenary, featuring the world debut of Burtch’s Four Portraits of Dylan.

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 5 May 2014

Daniel Jones – Dance Fantasy
Alun Hoddinott – Clarinet Concerto No. 1
Mervyn Burtch – Four Portraits of Dylan Thomas
Igor Stravinsky – In memoriam Dylan Thomas
Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Tenor: Robin Tritschler
Clarinet: Robert Plane
Conductor: Tecwyn Evans

In his book Remembering Poets, published in 1978, the distinguished American writer and editor Donald Hall remarked that ‘everyone knew Dylan Thomas’, the pub raconteur. He himself first met the poet at Harvard University in 1950, ‘before the fad or fashion for Thomas had begun’, to paraphrase his words. The occasion was a stop on Thomas’s first reading tour of America; an enterprise and a country to which the Welshman would, of course, return several times before his untimely death in Greenwich Village three years later. Accordingly, the music for this largely upbeat BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert was chosen to represent aspects of Thomas’s life both sides of the Atlantic, from precocious youth to those self-destructive later years.

The first half of the centenary concert comprised works by one of Thomas’s closest and most longstanding friends, and two further Welsh compatriots, whilst the second reminded us of the libretto Thomas never got to write for that much-lamented, projected opera with Stravinsky. We have no way of knowing what would have emerged from a collaboration between these two cultural giants – and whether, as Stephen Walsh has also wondered, Stravinsky had really got the measure of Thomas’s unruly world-weariness – but I suspect the result would have been far removed from Copland’s Appalachian Spring; which inclusion on the programme seemed rather a sop to some vague, pastoral notion of ‘America’ than any real pointer to Thomas’s life or work.

Indeed, given that the context for this evening’s performance was a live, day-long transmission on BBC Radio 3 (in yet another Thomas centenary event), it seemed a missed opportunity not to have performed a work by someone from his London years; namely Thomas’s one-time landlady and sparring partner Elisabeth Lutyens. For both she and the poet were regular freelancers for BBC Radio and professional collaboration was often in the air, if only as fumes from the whisky they imbibed together.* Sadly though, Lutyens is as neglected as Thomas is lionised these days and her music would only be considered an audience draw in some other, far less timid, world.

So it is hugely to BBC NOW’s credit – albeit thanks to Tŷ Cerdd, Music Centre for Wales, who provided the commission – that this evening’s programme included the world premiere of a contemporary work; and by a Welshman, no less, whose music is by no means as spikily ‘difficult’ as Lutyens’ but who has long deserved a wider audience: the Ystrad Mynach-born Mervyn Burtch. His Four Portraits of Dylan were deft and touching in both colour and characterisation, and they were brilliantly played by the orchestra under conductor Tecwyn Evans. Burtch was born in 1929 – fifteen years after Thomas – and never met the poet, but grew up knowing his milieu, hangouts and, by reputation, his habits. Cast in four sections, the work explored various aspects of Thomas from his youthful swagger and ever-loquacious wit (portrayed with a visual, almost cartoon-like flair) to the oft-blind searchings of the poet’s creative process. There were some lovely moments: the limpid woodwind theme of the second movement, the chugging, modal strings of the fourth, the cheeky slap-stick and temple block at points throughout; all presented with clear affection towards the poet from a composer who, moreover, happened to reveal an engagingly modest and youthfully curious character of his own in the process.

Burtch’s piece for the centenary had been preceded by two works: Daniel Jones’s Dance Fantasy of 1976 and an early one by Burtch’s exact contemporary, Alun Hoddinott: the self-described ‘apprentice work’, Clarinet Concerto No. 1 of 1949-50 – written, of course, around the time Thomas first headed for the States. The Dance Fantasy got the evening off to a bright and vigorous start, whilst reminding us that Jones – whose own centenary passed in 2012 without anything like the fanfare accorded his dear friend – has yet to be fully appreciated as a composer of substance, either in Wales or further afield.

Alun Hoddinott is, of course, the deserving dedicatee of the excellent venue that is BBC Hoddinott Hall, and his music continues to be held in great esteem by many – though he, too, is said never to have met Dylan Thomas. No matter; the cultural-historical context was all, and there proved much to enjoy in the elegant, understated neoclassicism of his Clarinet Concerto No.1, albeit that Hoddinott himself quickly moved on from it stylistically. Soloist Robert Plane was on fine form this evening, producing by turn dramatic verve, dolefulness, and a liquid incisiveness that was matched by an orchestra of which he is clearly a popular and respected principal.

In the second half, Appalachian Spring may have been the intended culmination – and it was dispatched with characteristic aplomb, if not with quite the idiomatic, wide-open ‘Americana’ feel achieved by the BBC NOW in its recent series of that name – but it was Stravinsky’s preceding In memoriam Dylan Thomas which made the biggest impact. Hans Keller once described this setting of Thomas’s poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ as Stravinsky’s ‘canonic masterpiece’, and so it felt here, in this excellent performance. Scored for a ravishing combination of tenor (the beautifully clear Robin Tritschler) string quartet and four trombones, the work is beguiling and keenly felt. Few would guess that its musical design is not only serial, but based on a five-note row that – to quote Keller again – ‘out-Schoenbergs Schoenberg’ in its tautness of melodic application. It was not merely a joy to hear the work, but the piece itself added a necessary element of depth and intimate gravitas to the evening’s proceedings.

* Lutyens was also a thwarted opera collaborator with Thomas. Around 1945-6, having worked with the poet on a number of radio plays, she requested a libretto from him but, in the words of Rhiannon Mathias, ‘he never quite managed to put pen to paper, despite a £50 advance.’ Like Stravinsky, Lutyens composed a piece upon Thomas’s death: the Valediction Op. 28, for clarinet and piano.

Illustration by Dean Lewis

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Continuing our series of interviews with significant figures in the world of Dylan Thomas, Jasper Rees talks to John Goodby, poet, critic and Professor of English at Swansea University. Goodby’s book The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (Liverpool University Press) was published in 2013. His new edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is published in the month of the centenary of Thomas’s birth.

This piece is part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Dylan Thomas from the Archive.

Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.