Nigel Jarrett considers Contemporary Evenings 2, a production from BBC Now, featuring two world premieres from composers Boden and Puw.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Soloist: Robert Plane (clarinet)
Conductor: Jac van Steen
Alun Hoddinott: Variants for Orchestra
Mark David Boden: Clarinet Concerto
Sarah Lianne Lewis: Is there no seeker of dreams that were?
Michael Berkeley: Concerto for Orchestra
Guto Puw: Camouflage
Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 28 March 2018
Alun Hoddinott was 25 when his Clarinet Concerto was premièred at the Cheltenham Festival in 1954. The warm response to it from almost every quarter signalled that a new generation of contemporary Welsh composers was meriting attention. It included the 20-year-old William Mathias. Although an older one was still active – Grace Williams was 48, and Daniel Jones six years younger – new sounds were catching the ear in a place where musical composition had become moribund for being shackled to tradition. While the BBC NOW’s home at the Wales Millennium Centre is not the international platform offered by Cheltenham, it was worth noting that Mark David Boden’s much-awaited new work at this concert was also a clarinet concerto, and one that arises from among a more numerous younger group of Welsh voices speaking in a variety of tongues.
One of the features of Contemporary Evenings 2, written for the orchestra’s principal clarinet, Robert Plane, Boden’s concerto is a four-movement work full of breezy zest and entering the repertoire among wind concerti that, in Hoddinott’s day at least, didn’t marshall large orchestral forces behind the soloist in what might appear on paper to be an intimidating manner. Hoddinott’s soloist is accompanied by string orchestra; Nielsen’s, despite the sturm und drang milieu, an orchestra of chamber size; Elliott Carter’s by a small-ish orchestra including percussion but with a conversational role that mitigates against any swamping. And so on.
Boden’s concerto, however, includes a fair battery of percussion in a full orchestra, perhaps to gainsay the whimsicality of its origins. Boden and Plane are friends and they both run long distances. It’s the composer himself who draws attention to this provenance, and sure enough, the concerto begins with the soloist out front as part of a mass start. The whimsy might be thought to extend to the names of the movements – Adrenaline, Isotonic, Threshold, Hypertension – but Boden is smart enough to eschew any programme. That said, it’s fair enough to describe what’s happening in terms of fresh air, endurance, and ultimate goal, and the other attractions of running.
Evidently, neither Boden nor Plane take the activity too seriously, for the contemporary concerto is also playful, though playfulness here is synonymous with concentrated virtuosity that for the soloist sometimes literally takes the breath away. The percussion is used as goading to maintain the work’s steady forward motion until a breather is taken in the third movement as two stately themes combine for a set of luminous and lyrical variants. The final movement is manic, with emphasis on the ‘hyper’. This is the only one in which the activity behind the solo part is seriously overdone and in need of pruning, if only to save it from anonymity, a fate undeserved after so much effort. I’d be surprised if this work didn’t soon enter the repertories of our leading clarinettists, for its control of the orchestra and the soloist’s relation to it is, with minor misgivings, masterly. There’s running depth here as well as surface caprice. The work was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Musicians as part of the composer’s John Clementi Collard Fellowship at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Boden’s was one of two world premières at Contemporary Evenings 2, attended by four composers with music on show. The other was Camouflage, an essay for orchestra by Guto Puw, jointly commissioned by Tŷ Cerdd and BBC Radio 3. On the face of it, camouflage might be undesirable in music, connoting as it does pointless concealment. Puw, however, is another of our new guides to the intricacies of symphonic workings and how they might be chanelled and controlled to reveal new amalgamations. In this work he wanders figuratively through the ranks intent on his mission of obscuring the craft that underlies the art, especially as its evolution proceeds from a simple two-fold idea that tantalisingly re-appears here and there despite textures built from accumulations of the same veneer. Whither the procession in all this? Like a camouflaged animal moving through the undergrowth, the travelling motifs also encounter surroundings as further disguise, this time formed from shifting, held chords, until, as it were, they cross a clearing (trumpets) to be hidden again, the trail left by a stray piccolo. Such a quaint description over-simplifies what is a rigorous and disciplined exercise by a composer at his most confident, but also one in which the emotional is suppressed by the cerebral. The tyger, after all, burns bright.
For transparency, novel orchestral colour and some heaviness of heart, Sarah Lianne Lewis’s Is there no seeker of dreams, that were? offers more restrained exploration in the contemporary field. In places, it requires the orchestra’s pianist to tap the ‘top’ of the instrument and scrape its strings, the double-bassists to bow beneath the bridge, and percussionists to bow instruments normally struck. These are effects that demand circumspection if they are not to appear merely tricksy. They come in addition to string glissandi and jittery woodwind. Lewis’s journey, based on lines from a poem by the American Cale Young Rice, is serious enough, and involves personal loss. As an account of how dream and memory are embodied in recollection as ineffable states that find focus in the orchestra’s seemingly bottomless trove of sounds, it’s a jewel.
Hoddinott is the spectre at these feasts of modern Welsh music in the BBC NOW’s home that bears his name. His Variants for Orchestra was composed twelve years after that Cheltenham première and is a more robust march away from it. The work’s attribute is adaptation of the twelve-tone system, which other composers in thrall slavishly adopted. Hoddinott makes free use of it. Three of the six movements were written while the composer was holidaying in Italy and are partly descriptive of the countryside. The fourth, ‘Notturno’, recalls the influence of Bartok, once considered widespread throughout his work.
Variants is a composer thinking big, as is Michael Berkeley’s Concerto for Orchestra, completed in 2005. Berkeley, twenty years Hoddinott’s junior, is of the generation interposed between him and the current one. The Concerto is galvanised about a central threnody for trumpet and orchestra (guest principal trumpet Jonathan Clarke the soloist) in a process by which the virtuosity of the band as a whole reduces for a while to its embodiment in a single instrument. But the structural complexity of the work overshadows its musical interest. In Hoddinott’s piece and Berkeley’s the voices speak more stridently than in the other works performed. Different times, different temperaments.
The parts played by the BBC NOW and conductor Jac van Steen in Contemporary Evenings 2 were exemplary. Sure, Boden’s concerto might, on reflection, have been less frenetic, the Puw work more certain of its way. But elsewhere there was nothing but assurance and revelation. In its 90th year, soon to be officially marked to the day, the orchestra might reflect that for a good few years after its inauguration this kind of music as a prospect would have been both impossible and repellent. Quam tempus fugit.
You might also like…
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.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine, among others. He is also a poet and novelist. His latest story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016, as was his first novel, Slowly Burning. His first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, appeared in 2015. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.