A week ago at the Proms—a more innocent time, before seemingly everyone started talking about Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new work for all the wrong reasons (Beyoncé) instead of the right ones (it’s crap)—came the first UK performance of Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer‘s wonderfully-titled A Freak in Burbank. Schnelzer is at pains to stress the connection he feels in this work to director Tim Burton, desiring it to exhibit a parallel kind of quirkiness to that found in Burton’s movies. The work began with Joseph Haydn as an inspiration, but while the size of the orchestra is of late 18th century dimensions, Haydn as an explicit point of reference is more-or-less lost entirely—Schnelzer’s half-apology that Haydn’s influence remains in “the use of G.P. and the transparent textures” isn’t terribly convincing.
No, it’s clear from the composer that this is nothing less than an hommage to Burton, opening with mystery and portentousness, blurting out semiquavers that coalesce into shivering violin notes. Courage is found, and things begin to move apace, painting minimalistic ideas onto the canvas; despite the cautious opening, there’s very much the feeling of a work beginning in medias res, hitting the ground running while we try to catch up on the narrative. To speak of narrative suggests something programmatic at work, and A Freak in Burbank certainly comes across like film music, moving and pausing as unseen scenes unfold in the composer’s mind. Throughout the first, brisk section, that could be heard to work against the piece (the ideas are a little thin, with obviously no visuals to fill out the experience), but once it grows into the fiercely passionate middle episode—focussed on a highly rhapsodic solo violin—the unknowable narrative becomes sufficiently tangible that one can simply be guided by its ebb and flow. We’re ultimately thrown back into the whirling, relentless figures from earlier, the finale crashing into the buffers at speed.
Forget Haydn (and, to some extent, forget Tim Burton too, unless you feel Beetlejuice is his magnum opus), the figure most strongly brought to mind here is Paul Dukas; Schnelzer has created a L’apprenti sorcier for our times, not by any means as finely crafted as Dukas’ masterpiece, but an enjoyable rollocking romp nonetheless.