The music of Pascal Dusapin is being featured twice at this year’s Proms. The first piece, Morning in Long Island, was given its UK première yesterday evening, by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, directed by Myung-Whun Chung. It’s not exactly the kind of appellation one would immediately associate with Dusapin, who usually prefers to title his works with succinct, single words. His allusive title refers to a morning, over 20 years ago, when Dusapin found himself on a beach, and was captivated by the movement of nature around him (not a million miles away from the moment of inspiration that led to James Dillon’s Zone (… de azul)). Morning in Long Island is structured in three movements, which continue without a break, and together with the large orchestra Dusapin has included an additional brass trio of horn, trumpet and trombone.
It’s this trio that starts the work, projecting a series of staccato phrases that end in emphatic slides (these will become significant later). A long, drawn-out string texture swiftly takes over, its surface tickled by some solo string acrobatics. A distant tam-tam strike makes everything solemn, a harp picking out morsels of phrases, its notes occasionally incorporated into the largely static string chord behind. For the best part of a minute and a half, nothing moves, and even when it does, it’s with the speed of cloud formations, one chord gradually becoming another. What’s so impressive about these opening few minutes of the piece is that they establish the kind of semi-hypnotic environment of which Takemitsu was so fond, a place lacking a predefined sense of direction, where anything can happen and somehow seems right. Apart from the harp, only the brass seem inclined to be bold, and when they are, surging out, it breaks the still surface of the strings, causing them to shimmer and tremble. Somewhere far beneath, things stir and start to rumble, before everything withdraws, leaving just a high violin note, fading away.
Rhythm! The second movement immediately offers regular, percussive material from a cluster of Latin-esque instruments, including congas, maracas and cymbal. But it’s no more than a tantalising glimpse; the high violin note returns and the music is redirected, gongs punctuating the brass trio’s initial idea, now muted and without the closing slides, sounding spasmodic in contrast to the faintly melancholic, slowly overlapping notes beneath them. A fixed pitch (G), quickly predominates, established as the fulcrum for a growing collection of instrumental ideas around it (again James Dillon comes to mind: the opening of his piece La navette, heard at last year’s Proms). Despite the attempts from some instruments (chiefly the flutes) to be assertive, the texture settles, and we’re back where we were 10 minutes earlier, the harp again picking out its tiny fragments over the almost motionless strings. Momentarily, the harp finds itself entirely alone; but then an extensive new episode begins. A solo violin proves inspirational for the whole orchestra, who start to move, almost as one, as though woken from slumber. En masse, it groans and slides around, gaining substance and solidity with each passing second, starting to surge and splash, rude clashes resonating like raspberries. After this, the orchestra seems to mollify itself for a while, idling absently around a few arbitrary held notes, before the brass return, in an unrestrained and frankly jaw-dropping display of horrific fortissimo wobbles. Yet again, Dusapin shuts everyone up, and the strings, harp and gongs clear the air; by now, the nature of this ebb and flow is starting to pull at credibility, as though, having established what i described before as a place where “anything can happen”, Dusapin’s discovered that he has nothing to put there. The orchestra grizzles a bit more, but now it just sounds toothless and feeble, subsiding to more high violin notes. While they’re meandering aimlessly high above, bass and timpani start to put in place the impetus for a vast orchestral tutti. Julian Anderson (exaggerating in his programme notes just like last year) calls this an ‘explosion’ but it’s nothing of the kind; Dusapin induces the orchestra to a protracted, aching cry, made ritualistic at its conclusion by some wildly struck gongs and tam-tams, before slumping into a rough bass chord.
If Dusapin had ended the piece here, i think he’d have created a flawed but nonetheless stirringly evocative piece of music that goes a long way to bringing alive the moments that inspired it. Unfortunately, for the third movement Dusapin opts to launch into a protracted finale of Latin-inspired cross-rhythms, heavily dominated by the percussion, and pulling to shreds everything he had so painstakingly fashioned during the first half hour. The glimpse of this material earlier on simply isn’t enough for it to somehow make sense; this is the kind of vacuous activity one might expect from John Adams or Nico Muhly, so hearing Dusapin stumbling into this kind of territory is a bit of shock. There are moments where it gets interesting—at times, it’s redolent of the kind of hectic textures in Julian Anderson’s Khorovod—but for the most part it seems an astonishingly ill-judged non sequitur, one that can’t be saved by an admittedly superb final flourish, the congas practically tripping over each other before the timpanist demonstrates the fastest diminuendo ever heard.