Proms 2016: Malcolm Hayes – Violin Concerto; Huw Watkins – Cello Concerto; Charlotte Bray – Falling in the Fire (World Premières)

by 5:4

Three Proms, three world premières, three concertos, one for violin, two for cello, all lasting around 25 minutes. The similarities between them go little deeper than these most basic facts, though, each occupied with a very particular soundworld, aesthetic, and relationship between soloist and orchestra. The results were similarly mixed.

Disappointingly—and, considering the strength of much of her work to date, surprisingly—Charlotte Bray‘s Falling in the Fire was by far the least cogent of the three, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it seemed to be trying the hardest. Given its first performance on Sunday by Guy Johnston with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo, the piece is nominally concerned with the consequences of conflict in Libya and Syria, atrocities exacted on both people and objects: Bray cites the destruction of Palmyra as an influence, and the piece is dedicated to photographer Tim Hetherington, killed in 2011. Perhaps it’s the earnestness of feeling that impelled the piece that makes it sound so full of compositional effort, but the plain fact about Falling in the Fire is that, throughout, it never seems quite sure of the purpose and/or direction of its multitude of action and activity. That’s not to say it’s unclear what’s going on; structurally the work is pretty straightforward, moving through a number of constrasting episodes; orchestrationally it’s rather more muddy, often sounding a little overscored, though never excessively so. But it’s not the what of the piece that’s problematic, but the why. Almost nowhere is there a clear sense of argument, of musical ideas presented and taken somewhere, of a consistent focal thread. Except in its most aggressively bullish passages, the piece simply doesn’t seem to know which materials are most important; despite everything going on, nothing really grabs the attention, or ever coalesces into something coherently real, robbing the work of any meaningful potency or agency. With Elem Klimov’s astonishing war film Come and See in mind, perhaps there’s a case to be made that Bray is attempting to present here a kind of thousand-yard-stare, brutally shell-shocked musical landscape where events can’t be explained, where irrationality rules, and where putative notions of strategy collapse into an angry, inchoate mess. In all respects, though, both musical and extra-musical, I’m not convinced.

More persuasive was Huw WatkinsCello Concerto, premièred last Friday by the composer’s brother Paul with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thomas Søndergård. Despite the entrenched conservatism of its language (like a cross between two other cello concertos, Walton’s and Shostakovich’s second), the coherence and immediacy of its music is strong, and often very beautiful. Proving that it’s just as true musically that it’s better to travel than to arrive, Watkins’ music is at its most effective here in the slow, more searching passages, particularly the expansive first movement. The unhurried way in which the cello turns over each musical idea is lovely, alternating between flashes of assertion and more lengthy periods of introspection. The orchestra stands back through much of this, a sympathetic partner allowing the soloist to take its time, only coming forward at the instigation of the cello and even then, shunning the spotlight. Having set the bar rather high, the second movement seems somewhat nondescript, despite considerable levels of pace and energy. Having said that, although it’s essentially a gallop in the making, Watkins tempers its rapidity and boisterousness; the orchestra again tends to err on the side of caution, and the music often gets sidetracked in more drawn-out, broader ideas that form a connection in terms of attitude to that of the opening movement. Having moved from slow to fast, the final movement is something in between, flitting between a kind of profound ecstasy and, initiated by the soloist, moto perpetuo driving motivic rhythms. The Protecting Veil-like demeanour of its conclusion is a bit cheap and nasty (for all its prettiness, the rest of the concerto is never saccharine), but the subdued conclusion is entirely convincing, reinforcing again the pensive line of enquiry that typifies the work as a whole.

Outclassing both of these pieces, though, and by no small margin, was Malcolm HayesViolin Concerto, first performed last Thursday by Tai Murray, also with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård. The violin’s relationship with the orchestra, initially at least, is less to do with hierarchy than context, Hayes allowing the violin to speak alone for a long time before shining string chords materialise, providing its hitherto blank speculations with a vague but nonetheless coherent harmonic environment. There’s something very circular to the 20 minutes that follow, Hayes setting up an environment where essentially two types of incident can take place. One involves the violin entering into an assortment of passing episodes of counterpoint, cor anglais (the most prominent), flute, horn, trumpet and, towards the end, even timpani striking up transitory dialogues with the soloist. But the concerto’s primary mode of action is an endless, boundless exploration, where the orchestra with infinite patience sketches in the violin’s surroundings seemingly on the fly. And with what colours! Hayes regularly plunges the soloist into darkest shadow, setting up situations that encroach or seemingly threaten, only then to make it soar upon the lightest of zephyrs into transcendent places of awe and wonder, in the process pushing the integrity of its structure to the absolute limit. Yet it holds, even admitting the semblance of a conventional three-part configuration, the violin recapitulating and reconsidering its opening gestures at length alone, whereupon almost static, inaudible strings provide a low, hushed exhalation as it ascends into the beyond. Pure magic.


Malcolm Hayes - Violin Concerto
  • Loved it! (21%, 9 Votes)
  • Liked it (26%, 11 Votes)
  • Meh (14%, 6 Votes)
  • Disliked it (23%, 10 Votes)
  • Hated it! (16%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 43

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Huw Watkins - Cello Concerto
  • Loved it! (16%, 7 Votes)
  • Liked it (21%, 9 Votes)
  • Meh (33%, 14 Votes)
  • Disliked it (21%, 9 Votes)
  • Hated it! (9%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 43

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Charlotte Bray - Falling into the Fire
  • Loved it! (11%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (57%, 25 Votes)
  • Meh (11%, 5 Votes)
  • Disliked it (16%, 7 Votes)
  • Hated it! (5%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 44

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Charlotte Bray – Falling in the Fire
Programme Note

On an eventful morning in August 2015, when Bray began working on the cello concerto, she read the devastating news over breakfast that the so-called Islamic State had destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra, including the historic and Hellenistic First Temple of Bal and the Temple of Baalshamin, dating from 323-31 BC. Although their destruction inevitably formed the focal point of the news, this barbaric act did little to deflect attention away from the human horror and suffering being endured in the region.

The use of moral outrage as a motivation for art, although new to the composer, provided a means by which she could both seek to comprehend such tragic and traumatic events and create something to which others may equally relate. And, while it was important to situate the work in real events, this concerto is entirely an abstract reflection of the situation and on conflict in its wider sense. The razing of the temples provided an inception for the piece, the emerging humanitarian crises forming its body, with the motivating factors of power, identity, religion, humanity and territory.

Shortly after beginning work on the piece, Bray came across a documentary about Tim Hetherington, the inspiring investigative photo-journalist, who was sadly killed in Libya in 2011 in a bomb explosion. Hetherington described the absurd allure of conflict zones; struck by the hidden pull he often felt when away from them to return, find the stories, and show the world what is happening in the darkest corners of our world. It is evident, certainly for Hetherington, that his experiences in conflict zones were hard to shake off on his return to life at home.

With both of these motivations, the concerto began to take shape. The piece snaps between adrenaline-filled conflict sections and ‘real’ life at home, where even there, the mind is in another place. The abnormality of war and what has been experienced remain, creating a numb, blurred, fragile experience that makes one question which life is ‘real’. Between each section and beginning the work, sits a gritty, sometimes eerie interlude, suspending time and pulse: it functions as a transition, a conduit into and out of the conflict zone or real life, almost like a dream sequence. These disorientating interludes take as their starting point either the low humming of a helicopter close by or the intense high-ringing ‘heard’ after an explosion. The cello darkly sings out, defiantly. As in recurring memories, varied repetitions hauntingly return throughout. Sections cut in and out like a cross-faded video between two different worlds.

—Charlotte Bray

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Chris L

Hints of late Rubbra, I thought, in the Watkins as well…which, again, is never a bad thing in my book (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?)!

Chris L

Haven’t heard any in Xenakis yet, but I’m sure if I search hard enough…

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