Proms 2008: Steven Stucky – Rhapsodies (World Première)

by 5:4

In seven days’ time, the 2011 Proms season will be upon us, bringing with it a welter of new music. This year’s season promises no fewer than 12 world premières and eight UK premières, plus four ludicrously-titled “London premières”; once again, they’ll all be featured on 5:4, alongside one or two other interesting pieces. While the anticipation mounts, here’s one of the new works premièred in 2008’s Proms season, Rhapsodies by US composer Steven Stucky. It received its first performance on 28 August by the New York Philharmonic (in their first visit to the Proms), directed by Lorin Maazel.

In some ways, Rhapsodies revolves around the woodwind; a solo flute begins the work, hopping restlessly at altitude, its appassionato material gradually accreting with the addition of the rest of the section. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a stylised dawn chorus, lightly punctuated by soft pizzicati and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bells. The cor anglais is the first instrument to be given melodic prominence, provoking energetic interjections from the muted brass, which eventually shift the piece in a slightly different direction, and usher in the upper strings. Throughout all of this, melody is literally everywhere, but the relentless intensity results in a rather delirious kind of texture music, the ear unable to stay focused for more than a couple of moments on any particular line. A little under halfway through, the brass present an idea that holds things back for a while. As this dissipates, the strings finally come to the fore in an extended melody, backed up with spritely woodwind staccati beyond, reinforced by more distant bells. Here, and throughout, Stucky’s command of what we might call ‘aural perspective’ is impressive; despite these occasions when instruments are allowed to project outwards, he bravely restricts their dynamics so that, while unmistakeably in relief, they nonetheless remain very much part of the overall texture, distinct but embedded. The strings’ material is steadily reduced in both speed and energy, leading to a rich, mellifluous idea in the brass, who almost luxuriate in the opulent chords they instigate. This causes the rest of the orchestra to build towards a climax, whereupon, with a wallop, everything retreats and hovers, brief glimpses of melodic fragments gently materialising from all directions, all the while dissolving into nothing.

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