Saturday 7 August’s Proms concert saw the first London performance of Julian Anderson‘s 25-minute Fantasias, a work the National Youth Orchestra has been playing around the country for the last few days, all under the direction of Semyon Bychkov.
It’s a work in five movements, the first of which puts the spotlight firmly on the brass section, about whom Anderson festoons a capricious collection of fanfare fragments, each of which gets thrown around like a drunken (almost pugilistic) hocket. It’s breathless, exhilarating stuff, showing the composer’s skill at collective brass writing (at times suggestive of some of John Pickard’s work). The remainder of the orchestra join in at the second Fantasia, the strings given something slow and potential, the winds to a large extent hiccuping at intervals (all very ‘Faber’); thankfully, it does broaden out into something less generic, first softening into a rather nice mush of overlapping strings atop tinkling celesta/harp offerings, before a semi-boisterous final few minutes where the instruments flounce around with gusto, like a chorus of dandies out on the town.
The winds are clearly at the heart of this attitude, and they’re pretty much forced to calm the hell down in the radically different third movement. They begin as before, chirping and tweeting like the occupants of some asylum for passerines with ADHD, and while the strings seem tolerant of this at first, they soon move in with a deeply unsettling crescendo that culminates in terse col legnos. This breaks up the activity in the winds, and the brass strike out with something more serious, only for the winds to return as before, and the strings chasten them even more firmly. Whereupon everything falls apart; a broad fortissimo, individual instruments more or less lost in the melée, a hint of brass here and there (in fact, more than a hint); it’s a fantastic moment, the material positively emitting light from all the activity. It ebbs into a soft coda of more col legno strings (grumpy to the last, it seems), and a final sarcastic reminder that the winds have learnt precisely nothing from the exercise.
Anderson’s fourth Fantasia, he claims, has its stylistic origins in the fabulous music that accompanied the Tom and Jerry cartoons (Anderson mentions Carl Stalling in the prelimary interview, although Scott Bradley’s scores were arguably the more ground-breaking). Citing an influence like that is all very fine and good, except the resultant whirlwind of superficial sonic jump cuts only goes to show how typical—no, doggedly persistent—this kind of thing is anyway in his music (and others of the Faber ilk). Like a demented, demonic moth it flits around for a minute or two before being put out of its misery—it lacks any of the humour, still less of the charm, of the glorious mayhem of sounds that accompanied those seminal animations; utterly, utterly boring.
To close, Julian Anderson serves up, “a headlong rush, roller-coaster like, as the music hurtles on its way”—oh, so the fourth movement all over again then? Worryingly, this is precisely what we are given at first, until the strings make some earnest attempts at starting something melodic; it doesn’t happen, of course, but it does at least take the music in a different direction, one that for a time becomes less obsessed with gestures. It takes the brass—as they did at the outset—to establish something with a bit of substance, which they do, fierce and regular; it injects a bit more thought into the proceedings, but sadly, comes to nothing, Anderson ultimately revelling in a depressing display of mere bombast.
It’s such a shame this brace of banalities is the last thing one hears of Fantasias, as the earlier movements are far more praiseworthy. Both the first and third Fantasias are excellent, engaging and highly enjoyable, demonstrating Anderson’s trademark deft hand for timbres, particularly less usual sonic colours. Yet i can’t help feeling once again that Anderson’s turning into a latter-day Elgar (not a compliment, in case that needed pointing out), composing music that’s beautifully orchestrated—no-one could doubt his skill in this area—but ultimately lacking deep substance, and yes, even becoming rather pompous (in fact, maybe he’s in a worse position: Elgar did at least pour emotion into his works, something usually conspicuously absent from Anderson’s music). Nonetheless, there is some good stuff here; you just need to latch onto it, and not allow the weaker movements to become a distraction.
One final thought: regardless of the changeable quality on display here, the National Youth Orchestra deserves loud praise for the aplomb with which they negotiated their way through the piece. The skill and maturity of this orchestra is nothing less than astonishing.