Nigel Jarrett is at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre for a performance by BBC National Orchestra of Wales as part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2018.
The currency of so-called Western classical music has long been universal. In absorbing features of the non-Western it has been enriched rather than diminished or corrupted. Even in countries and cultures with their own distinctive music, it exists alongside and is not regarded as something foreign – not much, anyway. It would be interesting to know what the 67-year-old composer Qigang Chen has to say about these assimilations. Born in Beijing but now a French citizen, his music is sometimes described as representing a ‘dialogue’ between West and East, but in terms of the works of his performed at the opening concert of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, he seems very much of the contemporary West despite the references to the country of his birth. For four years, he was Messiaen’s only student following the older man’s retirement from the Paris Conservatoire.
Like his Iris Devoilée, a work for voices and orchestra given a first London outing by the BBC NOW under its principal guest conductor, Xian Zhang, at the Proms last year, Jiang Tcheng Tse is a sensuous love song. Unlike it, the composer does not employ any Chinese instruments, such as the pipa (lute) and zheng (zither) but does feature elements of Peking Opera in its central role for the soloist Meng Meng (pictured above), who was the other work’s soloist too. The performance was first given a couple of months ago in Beijing, with the same soloist and the same conductor, Alexandre Bloch. This was its European premiere. It ended this Vale concert, which began with Chen’s work for full string orchestra, L’eloignement, by turns busy and rhapsodic.
Jiang Tcheng Tse is a setting of an 11th-century poem from the Song Dynasty by Su Shi. It’s not so much an elegy, as its elegiac tone is ruptured by outburst. The poet is communicating with his wife, Wang Fu, who died tragically ten years before. He laments how time has altered his features, and dreams of how his wife returned to their old home. The eruptions presumably echo their happy marriage’s occasional turmoil and maybe rage at how death has parted them. Chen’s casting of a woman as soloist arose from the difficulty of finding a male singer who could match Chinese opera techniques with Western ones. Unintentionally, the settling on a female voice to articulate what one assumes would be sentiments common to both the husband and the wife has turned out to be a boon.
Chen’s mostly subdued writing – amazingly his first for a piece involving a choir – is for full-ish orchestra, central ‘voice’ (Meng Meng’s glissandi, brief visits to the vocal stratosphere, and other qualities of pitch and projection defy nominal description), and mixed choir. In a programme note, Chen, a perfectionist, describes the changes in rhythm, tone and interval as ‘extremely difficult’, though the 47 members from the BBC National Chorus of Wales, divided into two numerically unequal groups either side of the soloist, appeared to take them in their stride. It’s a largely ethereal work, at times quiet or tending to quietude, and the silence at the end – we need more of it at concerts before applause breaks out – seemed part of the experience.
Chen’s L’eloignement is an exercise in the dissolution of instrumental continuity, with the composer loosening up the string orchestra’s sections for a rondo and variation form, regularly arriving at points of nostalgia that reminds this writer at least of the English euphoric school: yet more assimilation. The work is based on a folk song, Zou Xi Kou (Crossing the West Ferry). The narrative might be applicable to Chen’s ultimate domicile in the West, as it deals with the relative merits of uprooting oneself and staying put. It’s bravura treatment, and the orchestra’s handling of it was dazzling, as was the performance of everything else on the programme.
The orchestra’s principal trumpet, Philippe Schartz, took a night off from his desk to feature as soloist in Danish composer Bent Sørensen’s quirky Trumpet Concerto, its elusively chromatic solo part with leaping intervals both huge fun and stern challenge. The orchestra’s contribution to what the composer calls ‘noise sheets’, including the rubbing together of hands and tight-lipped humming, is not the least part of what is refreshingly new about the piece in the sense that its provenances cannot be easily identified except perhaps in the work of Sørensen’s contemporaries. (In his composition Ständchen, he devises more of these sounds, such as footfall on pebbles, effects not on the conservatoire syllabus but whose expansion has been inspired by the clapping music of Steve Reich.) Sørensen in the concerto, splendidly mapped by Schartz, beguiles the listener with shadowy playfulness, in which allusions to experience, mostly truncated (identify them as you will), count for more than musical development.
Chen’s French compatriot, Thierry Escaich, is a composer-organist in the Gallic tradition of César Franck and Messiaen. Bulk is one of the characteristics of his twenty-minute Psalmos, a concerto for orchestra (sinfonia concertante) commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony and written in 2016. But it is also visceral, reverential, cumulative, and, in the end, breathtaking. It certainly gave the BBC NOW lots to think about and deliver, from the opening flute chorale (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) to the various ways in which elements of that theme are cajoled and buffeted or allowed to re-instate the chorale in the first movement, enhanced by vibraphone, celesta, harp and piano.
In the second, the spotlight falls on groups of solo strings as the music moves towards another chorale, this one from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, clothed first by woodwind and horns, before another chorale, declaimed by trumpets, joins the fray for the third movement. All this is stirred before an intense cello solo wraps things up. The fourth movement sets off apace with vibraphone and marimba marking time as the snowball of chorales rolls headlong downhill to a shattering fff unison tutti in C. If Hoddinott Hall could have echoed it would have.
Both Escaich and Chen were present to take applause, and Bloch’s control of events heroic considering the amount of electricity, both high-voltage and static, generated on the night. It was as splendid an opening for a festival of contemporary music – one of Europe’s best – as one could hope for.
John Metcalf is in his 50th year as the festival’s tireless artistic director. Next year’s event will be special and at this concert he announced an appeal for £20,000 to help finance it. Match funding worth £3,000 has already been pledged by the Colwinston Trust, with a further £2,000 coming from Metcalf himself in the form of his waived fee.
Header image: Meng Meng
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. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.
Vale of Glamorgan Festival : BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Qigang Chen: L’eloignement for String Orchestra; Jiang Tcheng Tse
Thierry Escaich: Psalmos
Bent Sørensen: Trumpet Concerto
Soloists: Meng Meng (voice); Philippe Schartz (trumpet)
Conductor: Alexandre Bloch
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 12 May 2018