Proms 2021: George Benjamin – Concerto for Orchestra (World Première)

by 5:4

Until i began spending time with George Benjamin‘s new Concerto for Orchestra, given its first performance at last Monday’s Prom concert, i hadn’t realised how tired i’d become with narrative. Not that there’s anything wrong or even problematic about the concepts and conceits that have festooned each of the new works premièred during this year’s season, but Benjamin’s is the only one so far where i’ve found myself simply listening to the music as music, devoid of extrinsic constructs that might in some way ‘explain’ the what and the why of the work. Perhaps that’s deliberate: his output during most of the last decade has been dominated by sung narratives, in the form of a song cycle (2015’s Dream of the Song) and two operas (Lessons in Love and Violence and Written on Skin); maybe George Benjamin, for now at least, has also become tired with storytelling.

That being said, the Concerto for Orchestra certainly doesn’t lack drama. One of its most interesting features (something shared with another recent Proms première, Britta Byström’s Parallel Universes) is its flirting with, but general avoidance of, conventionally climactic formulations. Indeed, on first listening, i found myself wondering whether the piece, for the most part, had actually done anything at all – and if not, what had actually been going on for most of its 15-minute duration? The reality is that the piece is full of continually bubbling materials, but this coexists with a parallel tendency toward sustain and suspension; the result isn’t so much music held in check (still less an equilibrium) but which moves elastically between these polar instincts, often superimposing them.

It would be simplistic to describe the result of this as tension, as the music doesn’t display familiar traits that one would associate with that word, partly due to the elegance and fluidity with which Benjamin negotiates its shifts in focus and emphasis. The opening minutes are a paradigm of this, first presenting a solemn, even slightly forlorn music made up of careful counterpoint, followed closely after by hints of propulsion that don’t so much emerge from the solemnity as simply spring up adjacent to it. Two episodes follow, both of which demonstrate more of this co-mingling of tendencies, one minute allowing the winds to push forward, showing signs of muscularity, the next turning away in favour of a reduced sense of drift, now allowing the strings to agitate outwards, before yanking things inward again. i love the complexity of this push-pull relationship, in which power and energy manifest in far more interesting ways than simply being channelled into conventional peaks and agglomerations of mere weight. Unlike many works bearing this name, Benjamin’s Concerto for Orchestra is less about fireworks than filigree, nowhere more so than around halfway through when, in the aftermath of that second (for want of a better word, abortive) episode, the piece becomes incredibly withdrawn, almost to the point of intangibility, yet still we can make out tiny slivers of detail emerging from a distance.

Benjamin does allow the orchestra a climax of sorts in the work’s latter stages, brought about via an expansive plateau – where the music sounds more paradoxical than ever, seemingly rapid and suspended simultaneously – whereupon, for the first time, it’s as if all the instrumental forces are finally pointed in the same direction. Even here, though, woodwind flourishes at its apogee are swiftly pulled back, fading even as the orchestral activity continues, leading to a lyrical, meditative conclusion filled with echoes and afterthoughts of momentum.

There’s enormous subtlety in the way Benjamin handles what are, ostensibly, quite simple ideas. First contact with the piece left me intrigued but rather cold, but each subsequent listen has clarified more and more the extent to which the Concerto for Orchestra utilises the players to explore a stunningly organic yet convoluted form of musical narrative, one that eschews obvious dramatic structures in favour of more unpredictable and nuanced sonic shapes and behaviours. Above all, the way Benjamin handles energy – so much more dynamic than simply letting it loose – is reminiscent of those patterns formed by electricity passing through solid matter, lyrical tendrils that testify to the presence of significant, latent power channelled into wonderfully capricious creative contours. It’s entirely in keeping with George Benjamin’s previous orchestral output to say that the Concerto for Orchestra approaches pure magic.

The world première of the work was given by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer.


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