Proms 2015: Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (UK Première), Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. & Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (World Premières)

by 5:4
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Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.

The conceit in Betsy JolasWanderlied, receiving its first UK performance, is that the cello, played here by Ulrich Heinen, becomes “an old woman going from town to town as a storyteller”, at the same time establishing an ambiguous relationship with the rest of the ensemble, mingling like and dislike. That ambiguity was difficult to discern, in part due to the very close-knit nature of all the players, their distinct strands intermingling constantly and giving the impression of a group of individuals all moving around together. One could argue the cello was at the heart of them, possibly, yet the cello line rarely feels overtly prominent, and certainly not soloistic. Of itself, despite being at odds with Jolas’ intentions, this claustrophobic density of interaction is modestly interesting. Far more problematic, though, is the music’s roaming quality which, although abundantly clear, undermines the work at a fundamental level. Lacking any clear sense of direction, with no ongoing trains of thought or overall notion of progression or evolution, Wanderlied ends up feeling arbitrary, simply passing through fields of activity on a whim, operating at a purely superficial level. This problem even manifested itself towards the close of the performance, the audience beginning to clap too early, a mistake for which they could hardly be blamed.

The world premières came from two former BCMG Composers-in-Residence. Shiori Usui‘s piece turns to one of the most (visually at least) horrifying parasitic fungi for both its inspiration and its title: Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l.. Known colloquially as the ‘zombie fungus’, it takes over the behaviour of its insect host, before eventually killing it and, in a ghastly coup de grâce, rupturing out through the insect’s head in order to release spores. The stuff of nightmares, and Usui’s approach taps into something of that, explored in a sequence of episodes characterised by textural and timbral colouration. Soft tappings, glistening arpeggiations and trills are the starting point, but, following a pause, a sudden slump causes the ensemble to become more assertive, letting fly brass gestures. Another pause leads to clarinets bonded together and a collection of grinding glissandi and wild staccato outbursts, increasingly insistent. It’s quite engaging, particularly as Usui’s textures, despite recurrences of pitch, are percussive more than anything, inhabiting a weird kind of vague clarity. But the sensation that, here too, there’s little going on below the surface, is a nagging one throughout, although that’s forgotten in some of the more dramatic moments, particularly at the end, when seemingly drunken brass start to growl and groan before the piece, squealing, quavers away out of existence. Whether Usui is seeking to emulate the fungus’ behaviour and/or the insect’s response is unclear; either way, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l., albeit entertaining while it lasts, isn’t terribly memorable.

BCMG was joined by contralto Hilary Summers for Joanna Lee‘s Hammer of Solitude, comprising three short songs to texts by playwright Rory Mullarkey (with whom Lee previously collaborated on her children’s opera The Way Back Home). It was frustrating not to have the texts available, but their respective gists were abundantly clear in Lee’s writing. That clarity could well be described as a drawback, however; the ensemble is entirely dedicated to reinforcing the vocal line to the extent that it sounds as though it has been drawn with a thick black outline. Opening song ‘The hammer alone in the house’ suffered most due to this, whereas in ‘A presentiment’ it felt a little more successful, the contralto’s central line being embellished and commented upon. Closing song ‘A suicide’ worked best, tapping into a fin de siècle kind of atmosphere, but here too Lee’s evocation of the text feels just too much on the nose. It’s not so much passionate as determined to be clear about the emotional subtext; it makes Hammer of Solitude as a whole feel rather pedantic, but the piece is at least seeking to tap into a deeper, darker impetus lying beneath, which sets it demonstrably apart from the other two works.


Shiori Usui - Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l.
  • Loved it! (3%, 1 Votes)
  • Liked it (34%, 10 Votes)
  • Meh (28%, 8 Votes)
  • Disliked it (24%, 7 Votes)
  • Hated it! (10%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

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Betsy Jolas - Wanderlied
  • Loved it! (13%, 3 Votes)
  • Liked it (38%, 9 Votes)
  • Meh (25%, 6 Votes)
  • Disliked it (21%, 5 Votes)
  • Hated it! (4%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 24

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Joanna Lee - Hammer of Solitude
  • Loved it! (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Liked it (24%, 6 Votes)
  • Meh (36%, 9 Votes)
  • Disliked it (12%, 3 Votes)
  • Hated it! (28%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 25

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Daniel Childers

Got my votes mixed up while I was scrolled down here, meant to give Usui a like and a meh to Lee, but I got them flipped around. Seeing as Oph Uni s.l. is probably going to end up in your least enjoyed realm, I guess that puts my opinion in the minority, but I enjoyed it. Had a mental image of it actually playing during one of those Discovery channel specials instead of the usual stock music and it gave me a good chuckle, as well as that I felt the interaction between the instruments was rather fascinatingly organic, certainly had more interesting episodes of activity than Wanderlied, in my opinion. As for Hammer of Solitude, I don’t buy it. Just because you call a movement ‘A suicide’ and throw in a couple of contrabassoon belches and a wailing contralto doesn’t make you God’s gift to modern drama, it just makes your piece as characterlessly angsty as any other modern opera. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the likes of Roslavets and Mosolov, but it just feels like that generation conveyed their angst so much more fluently, not to mention they had a hell of a lot more to be angsty about, but I digress. A solid bleh from me.

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