Today being the solstice, i’m marking the first day of summer with a small seasonal work by UK composer and conductor Jack Sheen. Sheen was one of the three winners of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition in 2011, and his piece Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze was composed the following year. It utilises a relatively small ensemble – cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, led by a solo alto flute – to highly impressionistic ends, resulting in a kind of contemporary re-imagining of the soundworld of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Sheen’s piece inhabits precisely the same kind of lush, balmy atmosphere that typifies the Debussy, and what it (understandably) lacks in post-romanticism is instead represented with an impressively heady quality that sounds as though it might just swoon at any moment. An idea accompaniment for the sweltering heatwave Britain is currently enjoying.
While the work is relatively straightforward, quite a lot goes on in its five-minute duration. What persists most is an air of suspension, the music seemingly caught, notes hanging in bands of humid space. This is brought into being by the alto flute, the initial movements of which trigger small-scale responses and extensions of its notes and material. Momentary impetus from the rest of ensemble, just over a minute in – the action of which seems to cause the music audibly to sweat – is followed by a lovely sequence continuing to focus on the alto flute, coloured with touches of multiphonic (and, in this performance, vibrato so appropriately heavy that the instrument almost seems to be panting). It leads to another, bigger, swell at the second minute mark, whereupon the piece enters a more complex episode. Sheen allows other instruments to vie for centre-stage; the oboe takes over first, everyone else floating around it, leading to a focused moment where everything hovers around a softly beating semitone clash. Sheen cuts this off, revealing the alto flute similarly hovering, whereupon it forms a kind of loosely-bound trio with oboe and bassoon, the music taking on a sense that sounds a little frantic (reinforced by tremolandi) though not remotely fast. This, too, is cut off: a really beautiful moment that leaves a shimmering resonance suspended in mid-air, before the work concludes with the alto flute again in the foreground, navigating a strong sustained accent from the ensemble before gently frazzling in the heat.
The world première of Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze was given at LSO St. Luke’s by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon.