Proms 2017: Brian Elias – Cello Concerto (World Première)

Around a month ago, i bumped into Brian Elias at the Cheltenham Music Festival, and we had a brief chat about his forthcoming Cello Concerto, premièred a couple of nights ago at the Proms. As i mentioned in my article with his pre-première questions, he expressed some reservations about including the programme note, worried that it might make people listen too analytically, trying to hear the structure rather than simply listening to the piece on its own terms. i encouraged him not to worry about this, and to trust that it would ultimately enhance the listening experience rather than distract or detract from it.

i’m still convinced that that was correct, though my own reaction to the piece, in light of that programme note, has proved interesting. Though i knew the essence of what it said, i’d forgotten the specifics, and ultimately opted not to re-read the note prior to listening. But as the Cello Concerto‘s half-hour duration slowly unfolded, the knowledge that Elias had created the piece using a carefully-managed structure, plus the fact that i’ve very much enjoyed his earlier work, began to make me more and more confused. Far from the programme note acting as a spoiler, try as i might i simply couldn’t – and still can’t – get my head around the piece.

The Cello Concerto is by no means an off-putting work. On the contrary, the admixture of lyricism and aggression that pervades the work is an attractive one, and the very apparent continual shifting of its architecture is stimulating; the combination of these two aspects is instantly engaging and pulls one in. The difficulties emerge when one seeks to engage with the piece beyond a moment-by-moment level. Its surface is interesting and varied, Elias shifting gears with considerable abandon. A low brooding melody from the soloist, coloured with double basses and a sprinkling of glitter from flute and percussion, forms the starting point, from which a sense of pace begins to flex as though the orchestra were founded upon an enormous piece of elastic. Now the cello pushes on at speed, emphatically punctuated by accents from left and right; now it pulls back, sustains ideas, seemingly scrutinises them one note at a time, the orchestra again following its lead. Both as a relationship and a narrative it doesn’t take long to get what’s going on, and it all bodes pretty well.

Yet as this played out over its remaining 25-or-so minutes, two characteristics of the music reacted to form a major stumbling block. First is its level of ‘assertion’: for the most part, irrespective of what material is being executed, there’s a distinct sense of it all happening ‘over there’, somewhere in the middle distance. That’s largely the product of dynamic, which tends to avoid extremes of loudness save for specific isolated moments here and there. Definitely no bad thing, of course, but when you additionally factor in the continually shifting behavioural mode of the piece, moving on from something before it’s had very long to speak, the combined effect is to create music that seems incredibly circumspect, apparently full of enthusiasm but reluctant to linger, keen instead to alight on ideas rather than confidently present or pursue them. i guess the structural pattern underpinning the piece is actually designed to create the opposite effect, where ideas return in similar and/or developed guises as the six original ‘stanzas’ are re-positioned in subsequent sections. But to my mind, the long-term effect is one of behavioural inconsequentiality, in which nothing that’s happening at any particular moment has any bearing or impact on anything beyond that particular moment. If it wasn’t for the details of the programme note, one might almost call it arbitrary.

Let me reiterate: there’s a lot about the Cello Concerto that i like, but the more time i’ve spent with it, the more i’ve realised the way in which i like it is pretty superficial. Elias’ skill and imagination with the orchestra is beyond question, and his use of the cello too, though conventional, is very nice, escorting the work through lovely variants of light and shadow. Yet long before the end my thumbs have begun to twiddle and its unexpected final bar simply makes me shrug. Does anything within it amount to anything? And if not, considering the ephemeral charm and allure the work displays, does it matter? These aren’t rhetorical questions: as far as this piece is concerned, i simply don’t know the answers.

Regardless, kudos in abundance to cellist Leonard Elschenbroich for stepping up at the eleventh hour and, after a slightly scratchy start, giving a sublime rendition in this first performance. As for the rest, i can’t help feeling Ryan Wigglesworth should have allowed the BBC National Orchestra of Wales off their leash a bit; the work’s occasional tutti outbursts surely aren’t meant to sound so muzzled and constrained.

Brian Elias – Cello Concerto (World Première)

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Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms
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4 Responses to Proms 2017: Brian Elias – Cello Concerto (World Première)

  1. Rob

    Spot on with much of this. I don’t know if you were there live or listened on the radio but I couldn’t get over how quiet the piece was played by the orchestra – and not in a good way. It felt a little tepid and restrained, as you say, and it coloured my impression of the piece negatively in a way that probably wasn’t a necessary result of the music itself..

    • 5:4

      i was listening at home Rob, and i must admit i wondered whether part of the issue lay with the sound engineers – it’s not the first time this season music has sounded a bit too far off for its own good – though actually it seems more to do with the factors i pointed out in the article. Really want to hear another performance of this in order to get a better sense of where it’s really coming from.

  2. Tom Armstrong

    Ditto re dynamics – I really wanted the orchestra to let rip at some point. BUT, certainly one of the more interesting and personal commissions this Proms. I found it often taking surprising turns formally.

  3. Chris L

    My initial impressions were that (1) rather than becoming bored by it, I actually liked the piece more and more as it progressed and I became more aware of ideas recurring (see point 2) and (2) at its most basic, the structure appeared to be something along the lines of AB(A+B). Subjectivity, eh…?

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