Proms 2016: Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto (World Première)

Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before.

The piece is written in memoriam of Berkeley’s late wife, Deborah Rogers, who died suddenly two years ago. Its tone is striking, not exactly melancholic, nor grief-stricken, yet not in the least bit reconciled to the immense sense of loss from which it springs. What it it seems to articulate most is a never-ending tendril impelled by a heavy, searching love that can do nothing else but move ever onward, no longer with anything certain to attach to, seeking in vain and keening as it does so. Berkeley utilises his orchestra with considerable intimacy, causing the violin to enter into fleeting duets—with assorted strings, flute, harp—but he provides something close to a companion (maybe even a familiar) in the exotic form of a tabla, hiccuping a charmingly oblique kind of light counterpoint to the violin’s heavy lyricism.

On numerous occasions, the violin finds itself alone or in the company of just one or two, but when Berkeley widens the context, the results, though fundamentally conflicted, are remarkable. The protagonist (or is it an antagonist?) comes into contact with agonisingly beautiful but stubborn webs of strings (which later, muted, become wraithlike) and obtuse, rather aggressive bursts of brass, yet the extent to which the violin interacts with these materials or simply passes through them with a kind of solipsistic/intractable indifference is hard to say. The relationship seems to be that the orchestra exhibits an attitude of (in every sense) sympathetic resonance, but possibly—from the soloists’s perspective—not always judging it quite right. Either in response to this external friction or in spite of it, the violin takes off at faster speed, its melodic line seemingly infinite, although it eventually yields, producing a surprisingly intimidating rejoinder from the orchestra, a lofty response that moves steadily but conveying an enormous sense of underlying power. This is released in a startling central episode where the soloist switches to an electric violin, screeching a Hendrix-inspired fusion of rage and pain. Such outbursts can’t last, and it doesn’t last, ferociously expending its energy in a climactic duet with, of all things, a tuba, before collapsing into an introspective coda. If that’s the right word for it: the violinist doesn’t quite seem to know what to do, how to bring things to an end; maybe Berkeley didn’t either, and who can blame him? To nominal support from the tabla, pitches don’t so much become protracted as just loiter around, until a furious timp unleashes a massive crescendo roll simply to shut everyone up. Musically speaking, perhaps not a particularly convincing end; but emotionally speaking, utterly authentic and true.

Such obviously painful, honest composition as this should be loudly applauded, and its various inherent difficulties—of structure and direction, of its relationship between soloist and orchestra, and the nature of its harmonic foundation—all become important, necessary virtues in what is an ardent but evidently arduous act of expression. In this first performance, Chloë Hanslip gets inside the tortured mindset of the soloist’s material completely, and Jac van Steen judges the role of the orchestra really well, on the one hand, walking on eggshells, on the other, simply getting on with it despite the aloof manner of the violin. It’s a seriously uncomfortable performance, but that’s precisely the point, and as i said at the start, Berkeley once again somehow makes this tension comfortable, imperative, vital.

Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto (World Première)

FLAC [106Mb]

Programme note
In 2014 I wrote At A Solemn Wake for the cellist, Adrian Brendel and the pianist, Chris Glynn. It was commissioned by the Ryedale Festival in memory of my wife, the literary agent, Deborah Rogers, who had died very suddenly earlier that year.

As I began work on the Violin Concerto I found that that cello piece was constantly invading my thoughts and in particular a melodic idea that just would not go away. Another influence was hearing Nigel Kennedy play a quite extraordinary electric violin tribute to Jimi Hendrix at Ronnie Scott’s. The volatility of this amplified sound seemed to me to echo the elements of rage that are so often a part of the grieving process. Listening to the amazing timbres Nigel was getting from this instrument, its ability to wail and to ride over everything else, it occurred to me that it would be a vibrant colour to have on the sound palette I was starting to mix for the concerto.

The third contribution to my emerging soundworld came from working with Nitin Sawhney and Akram Khan on programmes for the Radio 3 series, Private Passions, and then watching Akram’s sculptures in movement with his dance company. Both Akram and Nitin talked about their love and use of the Tabla which, as it happens, Deborah and I had relished in India on one of our last trips together. It occurred to me that the peculiar watery gurgling of the tabla would make a sympathetic aural continuo to the solo violin and that at a moment of hiatus the bol interjections (spoken percussion) could be rhythmically dramatic.

Somehow these disparate elements coalesced in my mind to form a twenty-minute continuous score which began to write itself. This is one of the best feelings for a composer – when a piece begins to be propelled by its own momentum.

By one of those happy chances, in 2013 Deborah and I were at Angela Hewitt’s Trasimeno Festival in Italy where we and other artists were staying in a lovely farmhouse. There we met tonight’s soloist, Chloe Hanslip and were struck by the musical and emotional intensity of her playing.

The Concerto starts with a percussive summons to a ritual. Over this the acoustic violin keens and wails, growing increasingly more agitated.

The thematic source of the opening music becomes clear in the elegiac, slow middle movement which recapitulates At A Solemn Wake with the accompaniment formed by harps and celesta.

The ritual summons returns to trigger the final, fast section and to discover the soloist now armed with the electric violin. As the closing bars arrive the central theme reappears and reveals its own source: the notes Bach used to spell out the letters B.A.C.H. in the closing bars of The Art of Fugue – as far as we can tell, the last music he ever wrote – and which simply stops mid-sentence. But here in the final moments of the concerto the acoustic violin alights on a shaft of hope and light, though an angry drum has the final say.

—Michael Berkeley

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