Proms 2019: Zosha di Castri – Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (World Première)

Many of the Proms seasons in recent years have begun with a world première, and that was again the case this year. In 2018, the opening work commemorated the end of World War I, whereas in 2019 the topic of commemoration is altogether more triumphant: humanity walking on the moon. However, Canadian composer Zosha di Castri‘s piece, Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, is concerned with more than just celebration; she writes in her programme note of “the noticeable lag in enthusiasm for further exploration since the late ’60s”, so the tone of the work is therefore somewhat conflicted. It’s worth noting that the broad scope of di Castri’s conception wouldn’t suit the kind of short, concert-opening firework that the Proms has often commissioned to get the season going, and it’s nice to see – as with last year – that the opening night première has been allowed a more generous duration, in the case of this piece around 17 minutes.

Di Castri uses this duration to create an episodic structure that is sometimes so highly dramatic that it almost feel like a semi-staged piece of music theatre. Her musical language in this piece is generally pretty familiar and conservative (often evoking James MacMillan), and as she mentioned in her pre-première questions with me, has an overall tendency towards the lyrical. The way this is articulated sets up a clear bifurcation between vocal and orchestral behaviours, the former sustained and melodic, the latter fragmented and textural. That suggests a clear demarcation between primary and secondary roles, yet di Castri’s interest in the orchestral textures is clearly considerable, and as such they don’t merely act as ‘accompaniment’ but as interesting and evocative atmospheres in and of themselves. Indeed, there are several occasions when the voices fall silent as the orchestra lets rip, most memorably in a wild outburst of rhythmic clatter, held barely together by a bassline comprising pitches seemingly inspired by a collection of bouncing rubber balls. (At these moments, the spectre of Leonard Bernstein looms large.)

More significantly, the effect of this vocal-orchestral bifurcation is to create a kind of subtext beneath the otherwise majestic, lofty air of the voices, who for the most part one imagines to be staring up at the moon in rapture. Sometimes the orchestra echoes this air of reverie – in the opening gesture of drone and glitter, promising weight to come, and in passages where di Castri causes it to hover, becoming ethereal – but the considerable volatility of much of their music comes to feel like the source of the work’s energy, enabling the voices to soar above, and providing the impetus for their force. There are occasions in the latter half of the work when it loses some of that impetus due to its ideas being overworked, though this is to an extent reduced due to the music’s dramatic shifts in character. In this respect, the close of the work is nicely effective and unconventional. Seemingly letting loose an obvious kind of climax, di Castri then immediately cuts it off, only allowing it to proceed in halting bursts interspersed with temporary voids during which the music’s energy dissipates, like a series of almost-silent release valves. Whereupon the piece finds its way to a place of elevated solemnity, the voices lightly coloured by bells and drums, ending in the stratosphere – or perhaps, in this context, on the lunar surface itself.

It’s curious how despite its duration, Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory has a distinct overture-like quality, no doubt partly due to its highly-charged, erratic narrative. Beyond this, though in general the work comes across as more about surface than depth – less about making you think than making you feel – perhaps that’s no bad thing for a work intended both to exuberantly celebrate an incredible human accomplishment and to kick-start a nearly three-month long concert season.

So that’s this year’s Proms up and running. Once again i’ll be reviewing all the premières, and as always, don’t forget to express your own view about each piece using the poll below. The results of the polls will be explored when the season comes to an end.


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Zosha Di Castri – Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory

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Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières
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