Zoë Martlew – Broad St. Burlesque (World Première)

by 5:4

Behind yesterday’s Advent Calendar door was an angel bathed in glory; today, characters and a context rather less salubrious. Broad St. Burlesque is an homage to the street in Birmingham that its composer, Zoe Martlew, not inaccurately describes as “the city’s principal party slag drag”. The piece was commissioned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who are based just off Broad Street, composed for the intimate, lower register-inclined line up of cor anglais, bass clarinet, cell and piano.

If ever there was license to anthropomorphise when listening to music, it’s here, the players becoming active protagonists (or possibly antagonists) in a short-lived yet passionate drama. When writing about the first performance in 2016, my impression was that the piece was “dominated by a bass clarinet that seemed to be trying different approaches – some melodic, others less elegant – of making a pass at everyone in the vicinity”. In fact, the entirety of Broad St. Burlesque seems to be an exercise in several attempts at hooking up. The first episode is a mess of blurted note repetitions in the midst of loud slaps. The cor anglais offers an alternate approach, tilting the music into a more lyrical and flexible mode, infused with jazz scents. This triggers the whole quartet to launch into a soaring overblown outpouring, laden with increasing amounts of heavy breathing, coming down on the other side with the bass clarinet hopping around with sheer excitement. Gradually everything reduces, not so much calming as receding into the shadows – and for good reason. In my original review i remarked how “Not since Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face have i heard anything so gleefully tawdry.” In his opera, Adès only went as far as fellatio; Martlew’s music goes all the way, bringing Broad St. Burlesque to an end with both literal and figurative bangs, and an outrageous, flamboyant final kiss.

The world première of Broad St. Burlesque was given by BCMG – Melinda Maxwell (cor), Oliver Janes (bass clarinet), Ulrich Heinen (cello) and Malcolm Wilson (piano) – in June 2016.

Programme note

Anyone who has spent any time in Birmingham for classical or contemporary musical purposes is likely to have encountered the spectacular scenes along the city’s principal party slag drag, Broad Street. Situated in exciting proximity to Symphony Hall and the CBSO Centre, it seemed only fair to me to add a little local colour to the title of a piece written for the leading new musical inhabitants of the area. The notes and rhythms grow from the names of both BCMG and its long term guardians, Jackie and Stephen Newbould to whom it’s dedicated with the greatest admiration for their tireless dedication to this wonderful group, outstanding contribution to new music and for generally being lovely.

—Zoë Martlew


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