Proms 2017: Tom Coult – St John’s Dance (World Première)

And we’re off: the first performance of Tom Coult‘s new orchestral work St John’s Dance got the 2017 Proms season up and running last night, courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. i’ve only really scratched the surface of Coult’s music, having heard two earlier works in the last couple of years, Codex (Homage to Serafini) and Spirit of the Staircase, premièred in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They’re both interesting pieces (i’ll aim to feature them on 5:4 when i get a chance), but the thing that stood out most in them was Coult’s very particular approach to pace and direction. i need to qualify that by saying my initial impression was that, in each case, these aspects seemed a bit off, but returning to them since, i’ve wondered whether in fact Coult actually succeeds in pulling it off through a mixture of audacity and simple unpredictability.

As far as St John’s Dance is concerned, this unusual approach – the result of which means the music charts a narrative path that’s less concerned with being organic and/or conventionally coherent, prepared to leap and backtrack at whim – emphatically worked to its advantage. While not as bad as the crushing weight of expectation that befalls composers drawing the short straw for the last night of the Proms, writing a piece to open the season is still going to impose itself considerably. In Tom’s answers to my pre-première questions, he clarifies that he’s worked this very thing – the notion of what he calls “enforced merriment” – into the essence of the piece. Yet it wasn’t all froth and fireworks, a mindless pounding to reach the inevitable money shot. It begins in a place of enfeeblement, in the wheezing, wraithlike spindlesquawks of a sul pont. solo violin, and around two-thirds of the way through we find ourselves back there with it again, Coult putting all the heft and mass that he’s subsequently developed to one side. To deliberately let out the work’s momentum like that at a late stage in a six-minute concert opener is a strange and rather courageous decision, one that, from a dramatic perspective, made a strong impression.

i’m not convinced that the rest of the piece quite lives up to the courage of Coult’s strikingly innate sense of twisting narrative. Much more so than in those earlier pieces, there were numerous occasions in St John’s Dance when the orchestral textures sounded worryingly familiar, such as the overlapping brass idea that breaks out around a minute in, and the new dance-like section that kicks off about a minute later, both what i would call archetypally ‘Faberian’ portions of music that, for all Coult’s compositional energy, sit in a furrow that’s been excessively ploughed before (by Anderson, Knussen, Benjamin, et al). Far better were the sections where Coult undermines the work’s sense of order, resulting in that gaudy sense of technicolor clarity that typifies Faberian mores becoming a more complex network of less determinate witterings; the short-lived outbreak of muted brass chatter halfway through – faintly reminiscent of David Sawer’s Byrnan Wood – is a good example of this, tapping more directly into the madness that’s at the heart of the inspiration of the work, as are the final moments, the piece becoming unhinged in crazed piccolo splutterings. Coult is at his best when this unpredictability that’s clearly an integral part of his musical make-up is allowed to take the lead and do away with the refined (albeit boisterous) politeness that threatens to take hold. Perhaps this time, the occasion ‘enforced’ itself a little too much on him, but regardless of that, the work betrays plenty of the quirky, engaging unconventionality of which he’s capable, and in any case, St John’s Dance is certainly memorable, and one can’t say that about the majority of Proms season openers. That in itself is no small achievement.

Once again, you can express your own opinion about each Proms première using the poll below. The results will be discussed once the season has come to an end.

Tom Coult – St John’s Dance (World Première)

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