New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance.
Despite being for an electric violin, Dean doesn’t over-emphasise its electronic capabilities; indeed, often’s the time that the instrument adopts an entirely acoustic persona, amplification being the only sign of its enhanced nature. Dean’s concerto is divided into six short movements. The first, ‘Abandoned Playgrounds’ emerges out of a bold rising arpeggio from the soloist, initially as thin lines of spider-like tracery but soon ballooning into dense tremolo formations. Just as quickly, though, the strings retreat into an unsettling but rather beautiful kind of vacant motion, the soloist picking out an elaborate line above. It’s followed by ‘Topography-Papunya’, inspired by the works of aboriginal painter Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, where ethereal streaks of pitch establish a stasis of sorts, a loose-weave fabric that, initiated by the violin, extends downwards and then slowly starts to move, becoming strong and then dissolving in more tremolandi which, in a remarkable conclusion, leads the violin to do the same at increasingly impossible altitudes. While the contrasting interplay of irregular/regular material in the third movement, ‘Peripeteia’, is of only passing interest, the fourth, ‘The Beyonds of Mirrors’ (a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem ‘Water Lily’) is a tour-de-force of vivid atmosphere captured in a short time frame. The violin, sounding here akin to an ondes martenot, swoops above a web of descending lines; the effect is eerie and other-worldly, made all the more so in the movement’s violent ending, the violin adopting fuzzbox-type overdrive to get its point across while the strings club together into a rambunctious mob. The cut and thrust continues through the fifth movement, ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, dominated by hard-edged sul pont playing and more overdriven material from the soloist. This tilts the movement into entirely new territory, a central episode where ever-increasing quantities of reverb place the violin within a seemingly vast empty space. The final movement, ‘Berceuse’ (a lullaby), lives up to its name, slowly overlapping string lines rising in register whereupon the soloist sings an exquisite, simple melody from the stratosphere, concluding with falling arpeggios that repeatedly reach its lowest note. Utterly gorgeous.
Where Dean’s Electric Preludes clearly bestow on the soloist an air of authority, Bernard Rands‘ preference is for a more collaborative, equal balance, which accounts for the distinct wording of his title, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Rands’ three-movement structure shouldn’t imply convention; his aim has in fact been to circumvent traditional approaches to form. The first movement, ‘Fantasia’, sees the orchestra and soloist working hand-in-hand, the former supplying ideas that acts as points of elaborative departure for the latter. A certain polarisation of attitude becomes apparent, the strings in particular adopting a more serious melodic intent while the soloist is light and playful – these exert themselves back and forth, causing the movement to twist and double-back in amusingly amorphous fashion. Rands conveys a wonderfully improvisational sense of dialogue, the overall thrust of his kaleidoscope of ideas (encompassing a wide range of moods and atmospheres) driving powerfully forward even as it arches back and round on itself. From within this mêlée, there’s a brief moment of melancholy proffered by an oboe, a seed of sorts for the large middle movement, marked ‘Slow, quiet, vague and mysterious!’. That exclamation mark belies the heart-rending emotional charge carried by this music, a charge that earlier on seems in part due to hints that the ongoing polarisation has become more argumentative. The orchestra seems to prefer demonstrative material, forceful and foregrounded, while the piano doggedly clings to softness and the shadows. It culminates in a clutch of accents that unites everyone and re-establishes the sense of collaboration. Or is it mere toleration? there’s an inscrutability to this movement that’s truly fascinating; and the music’s ultimate ebbing into quietude and a weird kind of non-ending speaks loudly of the emotional unrest from which it clearly all emanates. The oboe briefly reprises its role as a foil in the final movement, marked ‘Delicate and playful’, halting the incessant anxious trills and causing a moment’s reflection. But not for long, the piano leaps and bounds all over the place, carrying the orchestra with it. An abrupt crash a few minutes before the end seems to undermine this, ultimately bringing things more or less to a pensive halt. But Rands doesn’t allow the piano to get drawn in too deeply; its gymnastics wake up the brass who in turn re-ignite the entire orchestra, ending the work with cheeky staccato chords and woodwind runs.
With Bernard Rands’ title and approach in mind, Benedict Mason‘s new work Meld, given its first performance on 16 August, could almost be described as a “concerto for performers and concert hall”. The performers, Chantage choir and the Aurora Orchestra were anywhere but on the stage, dispersed throughout the multifarious nooks and niches around the Royal Albert Hall, making this as much a work about the interaction of sound with and within the building as anything else. If this much was obvious, it was perhaps the only thing obvious in Meld‘s 40-minute duration. Certainly, there’s interest to be found in the way vocal and instrumental sounds are intermingled and evolve both toward and away from each other, and Mason’s choice of allusive sound materials—often hinting at something you feel you should but can’t quite recall—has a playfulness that for the most part avoids becoming frustrating. Yet ultimately, Meld is site-specific and, as such, you clearly had to be there to appreciate properly how the sounds moved and developed around the space. Despite the talents of their technical minions, Radio 3 hasn’t really been able to give much more than a hint of what Meld is really like. In that respect at least, Meld has emphatically triumphed in its aims.
The combined forces of Chantage and the Aurora Orchestra were conducted (somehow) by Nicholas Collon, Bernard Rand’s Concerto was performed by pianist Jonathan Biss with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Markus Stenz, and Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes were given by violinist Francesco D’Orazio with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.
Brett Dean – Electric Preludes (UK Première)
These new preludes follow this line of creativity, owing much of their inspiration and development to visual stimuli. Whilst conceived as pieces of pure music, the lines, gestures and energies contained within nevertheless owe much of their ultimate shape to imagery.
Some of these came to my attention by traditional means; seeing the National Gallery of Victoria’s extraordinary exhibition “Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art” last year, for example, proved to be an especially inspiring encounter. The magical cartographic works of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri in particular, displaying such an encyclopaedic knowledge of his country, led directly to the second movement, “Topography-Papunya”, in which the music unfolds as if seen from above, taking in more and more detail as it scans and focuses, joining the dots as it were.
Another prelude was inspired simply by browsing through images on the web. The initial idea for the very opening of the piece, an ascending arpeggio over all six strings of Richard’s Violectra – and its subsequent descending counterpart heard somewhat later, reminded me of a rusty, squeaky swing in an abandoned playground. Just entering those two words in a google image search provided a beautifully wistful gallery of possible narratives and imagined sounds. Try it.
But the most striking image that fired my fantasy throughout the entire compositional process was that of Richard standing with the ACO, his exotic electric fiddle under his chin, taking mere breaths of sound and embryonic motivic shapes and transforming them, with the help of this impressive piece of electronics and sound designer Bob Scott at the mixing desk, filling the hall and enticing the orchestra’s manifold responses.
My heartfelt thanks to Richard and Bob for their invaluable contributions to this joyfully collaborative commission, and to Jan Minchin for her belief in the project and the financial support to allow us to realize it.
Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (UK Première)
Benedict Mason – Meld (World Première)
Brett Dean – Electric Preludes
- Loved it! (30%, 8 Votes)
- Liked it (37%, 10 Votes)
- Meh (15%, 4 Votes)
- Disliked it (11%, 3 Votes)
- Hated it! (7%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 27
Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano & Orchestra
- Loved it! (18%, 4 Votes)
- Liked it (45%, 10 Votes)
- Meh (27%, 6 Votes)
- Disliked it (9%, 2 Votes)
- Hated it! (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 22
Benedict Mason – Meld
- Loved it! (37%, 7 Votes)
- Liked it (11%, 2 Votes)
- Meh (37%, 7 Votes)
- Disliked it (16%, 3 Votes)
- Hated it! (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 19