Proms 2019: Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us; Alissa Firsova – Red Fox; Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto (World Premières)

A few weeks back, when critiquing Hans Zimmer’s short work Earth, i almost held back from writing about the piece as it was taking place in a concert for children. i couldn’t help wondering to what extent it was fair to hold up something so intentionally superficial to critical scrutiny. Yet why should music composed with children in mind feel the need to resort to superficiality? Isn’t that making some fairly hefty assumptions about what children can engage with, enjoy and understand? In the case of Zimmer, the question is essentially moot, as Earth didn’t make any concessions at all to the children at the concert – except insofar as literally everything he’s composed in recent years has been an abject concession: to creativity, originality and imagination. Perhaps that suggests his film music makes that same assumption about what adults can engage with, enjoy and understand – indeed, perhaps it compounds its fundamental problems by making this assumption about children and then seeking to treat adults in the same way. But i’m digressing; that’s a discussion for another time; suffice it to say that, at his Proms appearance, Zimmer just sounded like Zimmer, regardless of who happened to be in the room, young or old.

Yet these same questions raised their head again at the Proms last Sunday, at an event called ‘Lost Words’, another concert aimed primarily at children (and/or treating adults like children). The concert was a uniquely bizarre mélange of cloying, alarmist, nostalgic propagandising about the environment, nature and language. It was a performance as difficult to negotiate as it was to stomach, including two world premières, by Jocelyn Pook and Alissa Firsova, performed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain with the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Jessica Cottis.

Jocelyn Pook‘s new work You Need to Listen to Us placed cut-up fragments of speech from climate change activitist Greta Thunberg in the midst of elegant, almost potentially dance-like shapes and oscillations. Even though she occasionally tried to make the orchestra enact a Different Trains-esque bit of speech imitation, the two strands of material not only didn’t align, they sounded like two completely unrelated ideas randomly thrown together: one blunt, challenging and apocalyptic, the other lilting, emollient and saccharine. Whatever you may think about Thunberg’s message, it didn’t help that she was here reduced to what sounded like a malfunctioning early iteration of Siri, rendered all the more absurd when, following a lengthy portion of Thunberg, in which she appeared to be crying, Pook launched into an extended lullaby litany of animal names.

Back at the 2012 Proms, Bob Chilcott similarly sought to address the issue of environmental damage in his choral work The Angry Planet. He failed, the piece lacking any meaningful insights as to how humanity should proceed, but his music did at least present some kind of utopian vision that, if you really wanted it to, might just make one feel something not quite entirely unlike being inspired. i have no idea at all what Pook was aiming to address, if anything, or what statement she was optimistically hoping to transmit. The abject mess that is You Need to Listen to Us – such a hopelessly ironic title – surely ranks among the most appallingly ill-judged, sloppily-executed and downright amateur compositions ever to have been foisted upon an unsuspecting Proms audience.

Russian composer Alissa Firsova‘s Red Fox sets a text written by Robert Macfarlane that he describes as a “song-spell-poem”. Macfarlane is a remarkable writer, his books illuminating deep – and often almost-forgotten – truths about landscape, wildlife and nature, as well as the very words we use to talk about these things. His work is a necessary corrective to a society that, if it’s not careful, loses sight of things elemental, earthy, and wild. His text waxes lyrically about the red fox from the perspective of the animal itself, challenging assumptions about its nature and character (assumptions David Attenborough has aimed to dispel repeatedly over the years), revelling in the minutiae of its habits and its dual proximity to open countryside and urban habitats.

It’s a shame that Firsova has turned these words into an extended exercise in Hollywood-style grand excess: swooping glissandi, a cheeky castanet-driven romp and lashings and lashings of shouty triadic overload. Zimmer would be proud. Its better moments are its most inward-facing, when the seriousness underpinning Macfarlane’s text gets a chance to be heard over the incongruous bluster, and we detect ethereal and nocturnal hints of something above and beyond the surface. If only Firsova had delved a little deeper into these areas, Red Fox might have harnessed Macfarlane’s “song-spell-poem” to create some substantial, long-lasting magic, instead of merely short-lived, cosmetic sparks.

In the wake of this pair of childish duds, Ryan Wigglesworth’s new Piano Concerto, given its world première last night by Marc-André Hamelin with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by the composer himself, felt like an overwhelming relief. The work is cast in four movements – Arioso, Scherzo & Trio, Notturno, Gigue – and the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra is not exactly cut and dried. The Arioso is too brief to shed any meaningful light on it, instead acting like a lyrical prologue in which undulating wind lines lead into an impressive early climax (under three minutes in!) laden with layers and detail. The Scherzo movement is so unstoppable it’s practically a moto perpetuo, emerging from gruff accents into a playful dialogue between piano and orchestra. Here, the soloist is evidently the impetus for things, even during the times when it’s absent, frequently taking control, re-establishing a forgotten pulse, as well as, later on, shifting the tone into a much more ruminative area.

In a way, the Piano Concerto lives or dies according to one’s response to this fun, frivolous and occasionally feisty relationship. There’s nothing really memorable about most of the material, a slew of gestural cascades and torrents seemingly designed to be interesting at that moment in time, instantly forgotten by the next. In lesser hands this would become a kind of ‘disposable music’, but the fleeting nature of Wigglesworth’s material, the muscular and sometimes vivid way it’s orchestrated, and that pivotal relationship at the work’s heart all persist in keeping interest alive and strong throughout. In this respect it bears some similarities to Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto premièred at the Proms last week, though it lacks that work’s WTF levels of invention and sheer élan. Wigglesworth’s most engaging music comes in the Notturno, based on a Polish folk song. In contrast to everything that’s gone before, the piece becomes preoccupied and weighty, as if Wigglesworth were slowly turning the melody over in his hands, immersed in thought. Surrounded by alternately glassy and brooding strings, the piano comes to resemble a kind of haunted music box (it’s a shame this beautiful and often very quiet movement was marred in this first performance due to noisy members of the audience). Piano and orchestra fall out in the Gigue, seemingly having completely different ideas on how the piece should end, culminating in a blunt tutti crash that cancels out pretty much everything, leaving only blank, hanging wind chords and a seemingly resigned or defeated soloist descending into the depths. It’s refreshing to hear a work like this end not with agreement but a spat.


Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us (World Première)

Alissa Firsova – Red Fox (World Première)

Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto (World Première)


HAVE YOUR SAY

Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us

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Alissa Firsova – Red Fox

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Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto

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Robert Macfarlane – Red Fox
I am Red Fox – how do you see me?
A bloom of rust at your vision’s edge,
The shadow that slips through a hole in the hedge,
My two green eyes in your headlight’s rush,
A scatter of feathers, the tip of a brush.I am Red Fox – when do you hear me?
The scream in the night that stops you dead,
Dark torn from dark, a bolt through the head,
My sorrowful love-song howled to my lover,
My trash-can clutter from twilight’s cover.I am Red Fox – where do you find me?
In copse and spinney, ginnel and alley,
For I haunt city as I haunt valley,
Climbing the fell-side, crossing the pass,
Walking the high street, bold as brass.
I am Red Fox – what do you call me?
Shifter of shapes and garbage-raider,
Bearer of fire and space-invader,
Taker of risks and riddle-maker,
Messenger, trickster, curfew-breaker.I am Red Fox – why do you need me?
I am your double, your ghost, your other,
The spirit of wild, the spirit of weather,
Red is my fur and red is my art,
And red is the blood of your animal heart.

Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto: programme note

This work falls into four movements. The opening Arioso pits quiet, obsessive rhythmic figures against the piano’s brief chorale-like utterances. The argument becomes more contrapuntally involved, reaching a tentative climax, before dissolving back into the hazy mood of the beginning.

The second movement, the longest of the four, is a Classically designed Scherzo and Trio. Here the piano weaves an insistent pattern of quick, cascading figures, oblivious to the short, sharp attacks of the orchestra. The Trio that follows consists of two sections: the first involves imitative games played out between piano, solo woodwind and eventually all the violins; next, after a short transition, comes a languorous waltz which winds down to near stasis. A return to the scherzo material closes the movement.

The Notturno reduces the orchestra to strings and harp and is a kind of fantasia on a Polish folk song I first heard sung, movingly, around a late-night campfire. The song’s (for me) resulting association with night-time accounts for the dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish quality of the free variations based around its melody. This theme, which is first heard adorned by a simple canon at the piano’s first entry, contains its own internal, repetitive echoes which in my version I give to the harp.

Increasingly, as the movement progresses, the harp takes on the role of the soloist’s ‘shadow’. At the close, the song in its canonic form ascends into the highest register of the piano, barely audible.

The Gigue harks back to the 6/8 dance form of the same name which, in the hands of Baroque composers, often contained contrapuntal elements – as mine does too. The woodwind’s lively fugal opening recalls the first movement’s initial obsessive figures, now expanded to full melodic status. The piano immediately counters by introducing a more cantabile theme which struggles to establish itself against the more dominant 6/8 material. A brief battle between piano and orchestra is initially won by the latter, only for the piano to launch into an explosive cadenza. This traverses the movement’s two main themes before a crash from the orchestra freezes the music into a short recollection of the Arioso chorale. The piano, left alone, wanders to the concerto’s close.

—Ryan Wigglesworth

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières
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2 Responses to Proms 2019: Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us; Alissa Firsova – Red Fox; Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto (World Premières)

  1. Chris L

    Oh dear – assuming these two pieces were the evening as a whole in microcosm, the green movement (the underpinning science of which I’m sure you aren’t including in your “alarmist” appellation!) really wasn’t served by such manipulative dumbing-down! For all Thunberg’s youthful gaucheness, there’s actually much more nuance and sophistication in what she herself has to say, for the most part.

    • starry

      I actually find the music in the Pook piece more enjoyable than the other two. The voice overs are annoying, but the music is ok. The other two pieces were worth less to me, the piano concerto is the kind of thing that’s been done before and it doesn’t sound that interesting. Those who just like the style may be lenient with it.

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