Proms 2014: Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première), Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory & Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Premières)

The three Proms premières given at the end of last month make for an interesting comparison, with regard to the relationship between material and intention. There was no little weight being hefted around; Jonathan Dove‘s Gaia Theory aspired to James Lovelock’s hypothesis of the same name, concerning ideas of ‘self regulation’ in the systems that make up our planet, whereas Gabriel Prokofiev‘s Violin Concerto took both its subtitle, ‘1914’, and its narrative from aspects arising from the commemorations of World War I. Heavyweight stuff, then, making Simon Holt‘s inspirational starting point of a mythical god waking from slumber seem almost triflingly trivial by contrast. The results, though, were rather different.

There is no meaningful connection between Jonathan Dove’s music and James Lovelock’s theory in any way, shape or form, but with music like this, there never could be. Dove’s three-movement orchestral work is the epitome of emotionally blank, undemanding ear-stroking that any third-rate film composer can churn out at a moment’s notice. Which is not to say there weren’t moments of charm; there were, here and there, small quanta of interest usually arising from a glancing sliver of orchestration. But Dove’s dependence on surface results in yet another act of compositional obsequiousness, in which each successive line or phrase becomes a grating, yawning platitude; empty, empty, empty. Perhaps when one considers Lovelock’s theory has been widely discredited within the scientific community, Dove’s self-appointment as a cheerleader for its cause seems entirely appropriate.

Gabriel Prokofiev chose more solid but emotionally-charged ground in turning to the outbreak of World War I to inform his Violin Concerto. The work’s four movements explore a loose narrative of excitement, battle, indifferent leadership and aftermath. The first two of these threatened to undermine the entire piece, Prokofiev turning to the same kind of oblique militaristic melodies and manner that Shostakovich composed so often (and which were hardly unheard of in Gabriel Prokofiev’s grandfather’s music), but this was preferable to its later lapsing into something not terribly far removed from a Carry On film score. This movement, and its successor, went on far too long, although in the latter case it was frustrating more due to the intangibility of its material. However, the last two movements ejected pastiche and cheap evocation in favour of something entirely different, which more or less made up for what had gone before. The third movement establishes a powerfully brooding space, the orchestra kept restrained both dynamically and materially, moving over a 2-chord oscillation deep below. It’s very telling music, and it’s hard to tell whether the thunking percussion-driven responses that conclude the movement release some of the tension or ratchet it up further. Certainly the weirdly tremulous sounds in the violins present anything but relief. Which makes sense, considering the final movement’s descent into shell-shock, the instruments reduced to tentative, gestural sounds. Approximations of melody chromatically slide all over themselves; one brief episode of assertion from the violin leaves the orchestra wavering. It grows fainter with each passing minute, numbed lines hanging in the air like strands of tinnitus in a blasted landscape. Which only makes the experience of the work as a whole all the more frustrating, as, in stark contrast to those first two movements, such deeply evocative and moving music as this was entirely worthy of the title.

For his flute concerto Morpheus Wakes, Simon Holt draws on a much simpler and less emotive point of inspiration: “The soloist could be seen to represent the god of dreaming, Morpheus himself, as if slowly waking from a deep, troubled sleep”. Such a simple idea as this belies the intricacy and rigour of Holt’s characteristic writing, which here establishes a tense if not entirely ambiguous relationship between the soloist and the orchestra (which is timbrally altered by omitting violins and the addition of a Hungarian cimbalom). Essentially, they seem not merely to be working together as one, but are unequivocally dominated by the soloist. Considering that for the first of the work’s two movements an alto flute is used, and also that Holt allows the orchestra a pretty free rein in terms of aggression and dynamic, it’s all the more remarkable that the soloist should be heard as such an over-arching influence. There are occasions when the alto flute seems practically consumed by the pointed, hectic textures formed by the orchestra, yet the solo part deep within is akin to a whirling dervish, by turns soaring and skittering through exceptionally fast passages of decoration. Holt bestows on the soloist such relentlessly inventive music that the orchestra ultimately falls in a kind of awed silence, coercing the movement into a more gentle closing episode. The short second movement is bullishly alert, the soloist—now playing flute—putting on a display of unstoppably insistent floridity that borders on obsessive compulsive behaviour. Like an extended cadenza (in dialogue with the orchestral piccolo), the orchestra can do little more than embellish its music with glittering bells and wildly affirmative accents. Morpheus Wakes may lack the inspirational gravitas of Dove’s and Prokofiev’s works, but it packed an altogether more emotively powerful and accessible punch. Just fantastic.

The soloist in Simon Holt’s ludicrously difficult concerto was Emmanuel Pahud, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thierry Fischer. Dove’s Gaia Theory was bludgeoned into existence by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Josep Pons, while Gabriel Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto was premièred by soloist Daniel Hope with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sascha Goetzel.

Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première)

FLAC [76Mb]

Programme note
‘Morpheus Wakes’ is a flute concerto in 2 movements. For the first 11′ movement, the flute solo plays only alto flute. Initially the music seems to be thawing out of a slow, dark-hued and quite sparse permafrost-covered landscape. The player will change to flute for the second 4′ movement, which will be, by contrast, wild and unleashed, bordering on the chaotic; bright and vividly awake. The soloist could be seen to represent the god of dreaming, Morpheus himself, as if slowly waking from a deep, troubled sleep.

S.H.
18th December 2013

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Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes
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Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory (World Première)

FLAC [110Mb]

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Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory
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Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Première)

FLAC [163Mb]

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Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’
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3 Responses to Proms 2014: Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (UK Première), Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory & Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’ (World Premières)

  1. Daniel Childers

    As someone who found something resembling an odd joy to be had in Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for DJ and orchestra, I found something moderately satisfying in listening to this Violin Concerto. Personally, I find the first two movements enjoyable (if you think those movements are duds, go listen to Fazil Say’s violin concerto, the last movement should have been labeled “Blue Balls”), certainly not ground breaking, but there’s really no better way to display misplaced enthusiasm of 1914 than a bit of military march pastiche, and the typewriter-esque bit was delightfully propulsive, at least to my ears. Yes, the second two movements were far more evocative, but it’s nice to see Prokofiev Jr.’s style expanding from its clubbing roots… but dang, if that wasn’t one of the most amazing flute solos I’ve ever heard.

  2. J Simon van der Walt

    That Jonathan Dove really is rather tired and derivative, isn’t it!

  3. Pingback: Proms 2014: Ayal Adler – Resonating Sounds & Kareem Roustom – Ramal (UK Premières) | 5:4

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