Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project

The Proms wouldn’t be the Proms if it didn’t feature one of its favourite obsessions: contemporary music commissioned with the specific aim that it ‘responds’ to existing works in the repertoire. The most recent example of this is The Brandenburg Project, an idea dreamt up by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in which six composers were asked to write a work for solo instrument(s) and orchestra in response to one of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, utilising as far as possible the same instrumentation. The project began in December 2015 with Stephen Mackey (No. 2) and Uri Caine (No. 5), followed by Mark-Anthony Turnage (No. 1) in 2016, Anders Hillborg (No. 3) in 2017, concluding in February this year with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6). All six pieces received their first UK performances (though it was the world première of the complete cycle), together with their associated Brandenburg Concerto, by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at two Prom concerts on 5 August.

It’s worth spending a moment to consider what it means – or what it can mean – to ‘respond’ to something. It can of course be part of a warm dialogue, but we shouldn’t automatically infer similarity or sympathy of any kind in that word: a ‘response’ doesn’t need to employ the same use or style or tone of language, exhibiting not just a perspective but also a vernacular uniquely its own. Furthermore, importantly, the nature of a response isn’t restricted to the obvious continuum between positive (yes) and negative (no): it might just as easily – particularly in music – have more in common with the Buddhist ‘mu‘, a response that rejects as flawed or incompatible the very premise of the thing being responded to, demanding that the question it supposedly poses be “un-asked”.

Not surprisingly, the range of responses exhibited in these six new works was wide and varied, though the majority could broadly be described as displaying at least some sympathy with the Bach. In some cases, this involved the composers incorporating Bach’s material into their own. In the case of Anders Hillborg‘s Bach Materia, a violin concerto featuring Pekka Kuusisto as soloist, the result is something of a mashup. Outbursts of Brandenburg 3 occur liberally in the midst of Hillborg’s own material, often giving the impression that the Bach is a kind of ‘default position’ being playfully deviated away from at assorted tangents, one of which sounds like an askew barn dance with instances of scat. Not just materially either: the form of the work mirrors the Bach, Hillborg exploring a slow central section that alludes to his own composed version of Brandenburg 3’s middle movement, performed at this concert (Bach famously only provided two chords). Hillborg left much of the solo part to be improvised by Kuusisto, though whether this plays into the work’s general mashup vibe or obfuscates it is debatable. Certainly, the extended noodling that littered the final quarter of the work in this performance (garnished with singing and whistling) seemed completely at odds with everything else that had preceded it. As with much of Hillborg’s recent work, if you don’t buy into Bach Materia‘s simple entertainment value then it all feels rather too superficial for its own good.

A far more extreme mashup was Olga Neuwirth‘s response to Brandenburg 4, Aello – ballet mécanomorphe, a flute concerto featuring Clare Chase. Neuwirth replaces Bach’s harpsichord with a synthesizer (in order to obtain the sound of both a harpsichord and a glass harmonica), and renders what Bach cryptically described as “flauti d’echo” as a pair of muted trumpets. Like Hillborg, Neuwirth has also mirrored the fast-slow-fast pattern of the Bach, though she uses convoluted tunings: the flute, trumpets, first violins and violas are at standard pitch; the synth and second violins a quartertone lower; and the cellos, rather mischievously, are a sixth-tone higher. The title alludes to one the harpies of classical mythology, though Neuwirth specifically had in mind “someone sent by the gods to restore peace, if necessary with force, and to exact punishment for crimes”. The latter part of the title is arguably the most pertinent to the way the music behaves, coming across as though it were the output from a typically inept machine-learning process, Bach’s music mangled, misunderstood and otherwise mishandled. Shapes, traces and outlines of Brandenburg 4 are literally everywhere, though so madcap in their new guise that the piece transcends mashup territory, becoming something more akin to a fever dream (or perhaps, considering its Baroque origins, a fugue state). The glass harmonica-dominated central episode is a necessary diversion from this madness, capturing real beauty in the strange drifting pitches surrounding the glimpses of activity from the flute. If anything, though, this period of repose only highlights just how completely unhinged is the rest of Aello – ballet mécanomorphe, and while the extent of its delirium is certainly arresting, one can’t help feeling it’s weird at the expense of being wonderful.

One step removed from the Bach was Triceros by Steven Mackey, a quadruple concerto for flute (Fiona Kelly), oboe (Mårten Larsson), trumpet (Håkan Hardenberger) and violin (Antje Weithaas), of which the trumpet is the driving force – appropriate considering the work responds to Brandenburg 2, which features a highly virtuosic role for piccolo trumpet. The title is a (sadly misspelled) reference to the three-horned chameleon Trioceros jacksonii, due to the fact that the trumpeter uses ‘three horns’: trumpet, piccolo trumpet and flugelhorn. Unique among the six works, Mackey’s piece emerges from the final chord of Brandenburg 2, extending the piccolo trumpet’s high C to create the opening of Triceros. Thereafter, Bach is a more elusive presence in the piece, which initially explores various melodic possibilities – passed among the soloists – the strings seemingly expressing approval by varying quantities of hopping about. Despite the lively and light playfulness that characterises the piece, the first half has a decidedly pensive side, articulated in a lengthy episode featuring a rather lovely kind of cautious lyricism. This is answered later with extended passages of rapidity and clatter – the pace of the material more important than its actual notes – where it’s a bit too easy to glaze over (hardly unique in Mackey’s music), concluded with a bizarre ending that sounds like the epitome of an afterthought: apparently undecided of how to end, the piece simply quotes the end of the Brandenburg (from which, 20 minutes earlier, it began). Not so much a recapitulation as a real WTF moment that, considering how far Triceros has apparently moved away from the Bach, just doesn’t work. Hard to dislike, but even harder to take seriously.

Australian composer Brett Dean took the opposite approach to Mackey, designing his piece, Approach – Prelude to a Canon, not only to precede but actually to segue into the opening of Brandenburg 6. A double viola concerto – featuring the composer himself and Tabea Zimmermann as soloists – Dean has designed the two violas to have polarised personalities, his aim being “to find a point of reconciliation between them that justifiably leads us into the particular type of close, contrapuntal relationship of voices inherent in Bach’s original”. This is expressed via divergent behaviours: one viola concerned with being fast and busy, more about momentum than anything else, the second slow-moving and lyrical, carefully unfolding a melodic line. As dialogues go, their back and forth (in which the orchestra doesn’t so much take sides as go along with whichever seems currently to be in the foreground) is somewhere between a standoff and a punch-up. The more aggressive behaviour looks set to take command early on, but Dean causes this to peter out into such an extended exploration of the melodic behaviour that it doesn’t merely sound dominant but practically becomes a kind of slow movement in its own right. Thereafter, Dean’s development of these twin strands is typically varied, including a striking outbreak of overlapping lines, possibly canonic but wonderfully murky and incoherent, though the piece ends up entering – and, seemingly, becoming lost in – an episode where it just meanders around, seemingly in a complete daze, all notion of direction, purpose or motivation completely lost. Echoes of the collapse at the end of Mackey’s Triceros and, similarly, Dean then roughly grapples with the material to form a rather surly transition into the start of Brandenburg 6, like a train grudgingly starting into motion. In and of itself it’s a nice transition but, retrospectively, feels forced, as though the development of the work’s twin arguments had reached an impasse that could only be resolved by putting it aside and doing something completely different instead. Fair enough, i guess, but doesn’t that rather undermine all of the exchanges and effort from the previous 12 minutes? Does Brandenburg 6 succeed in reconciling its opposites where Approach – Prelude to a Canon fails? Ultimately, there’s something fundamentally disappointing and shrug-inducing about the way the piece plays out.

The remaining two new works in The Brandenburg Project were by far the most ambitious, though interestingly their relationship with Bach’s music could hardly be more contrasting. Despite being a self-professed fan of Bach’s music, Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s response to Brandenburg 1 is more along the lines of that ‘mu’ response i described at the start. Which is not to say that Turnage turns his back on the Bach exactly, but Maya – a cello concerto composed for soloist Maya Beiser – is not so much a reply as a riposte. Of these six pieces, Maya is the most inward-looking, a large-scale but for the most part restrained expression of intense intimacy, by turns sharp, poignant and lush. From the perspective of concerto psychology, it has the demeanour of a middle (slow) movement, but since this is the entirety of the piece – at no point does momentum significantly threaten to alter the prevailing mood – it creates a kind of sealed bubble that only reinforces that sense of intimacy. A little under halfway through, Maya surges (and seemingly rises) twice to form a complex climactic surge dominated – as the work as a whole is dominated – by the work’s ongoing train of melodic thought, subsequently pulling quickly back into a reflective soliloquy. Throughout, melody is absolutely at the heart of Maya, liberally shared by the soloist with the rest of the orchestra (prominently taken over for a time by a horn towards the end), and this acts to unify and hold together music that might otherwise tend to meander or feel unfocused. In many respects, Turnage’s is the most mature, thought-provoking and emotionally-charged of the six pieces, as well as being the only one that feels genuinely autonomous, in which Bach is only conspicuous by his absence.

It’s hardly the wrong word, but describing Uri Caine‘s Hamsa, responding to Brandenburg 5, as ‘ambitious’ is an enormous understatement. A concerto for flute (Fiona Kelly), violin (Antje Weithaas) and piano (Caine himself), the title is the Arabic word for five, and also denotes a hand-shaped protective symbol. Where Turnage responded by turning away from Bach, Caine faces him head-on, embracing both the formal structure of Brandenburg 5 as well as its emphasis on virtuosity (the original features an incredibly long and florid fully-notated harpsichord solo). In some respects Hamsa whisks us back to the world of the mashup, a plethora of quasi-/faux-/pseudo-Bach-like turns of phrase in the midst of a wild – and it really is wild – collection of forceful, ever-shifting gestures, shapes and ideas. Caine’s orchestra becomes a veritable menagerie, the music of which clearly originates in Bach, but as tiny morsels and motifs that are then massively extended in ever more outrageous and overblown flights of fancy. The slow movement escorts us, via soft whirligigs, into a more dream-like stream of consciousness, shot through with a leaning towards less hectic, more leisurely music, the orchestra providing a context to frame and offset the soloists’ counterpoint, an environment that feels not unlike a garden backdrop. If anything, the final movement owes more of a debt to the spirit (but not style) of Mozart. Forceful and ebullient, another mashed-up stream of consciousness, it’s remarkable in the way it continually feels so close to something recognisable – yet without ever resorting to definitive imitations or quotations or pastiche. In hindsight, it was serendipitous that, the same day i first listened to Hamsa, i also watched the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, as it seems to me there are various aesthetic parallels. Its director, the great Hayao Miyazaki, starts work before his stories are finished, allowing the film to “make itself”. In the case of Spirited Away, the result is one of the most unforgettable, jaw-droppingly imaginative – though frequently bewildering – cinematic experiences you’ll ever have, one that only hangs together by the skin of its teeth, in no small part due to how completely beguiling it is. Hamsa, to my mind, is precisely the same: imagination gone berserk, disorientingly and ear-poppingly inventive, and from start to end a complete and utter treat. Marvellous.

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