Until last Sunday, among the new works premièred at the Proms there hadn’t been what we’re all used to hearing: namely, a short, ebullient romp that gets a concert up and running. And then, a couple of days ago, the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, directed by Antonio Pappano, gave the first European performance of Occidentalis, by US composer Benjamin Beckman. In his response to my pre-première questions, Beckman spoke about writing a piece that was a way of getting away from the vocal music he had been writing (as part of an opera), and the programme note explains the title by reflecting on the historical use of the term and its associations with travel – going west – as well as connotations of immigration with regard to the USA.
That’s all fine and good, but i suspect the only part of the programme note that actually matters with regard to the piece are Beckman’s closing words, referencing the prospect of setting out with “excitement and the joy of possibility”. This is Occidentalis in a nutshell, a 200-second flash-in-the-pan that gets the concert started with an absolute minimum of fuss. There’s just a hint of what Beckman describes as “uncertainty and anxiety in what the future may hold” as the work’s fanfaric brass opening starts to thicken and become enriched, in the process sounding almost pensive. It’s a nice moment, suggesting the piece might just be going somewhere entirely different from where we expect. But no, off we go through a familiar welter of surges and the kind of fleeting, post-John Adams repetitive textures so endlessly enamoured of US composers, overlaid with slower-moving brass and periodic cracking accents. Forgettable, formulaic froth that makes precisely no demands on anyone – and that’s really not so much a criticism as a simple observation. But then, in such a short duration as this, perhaps few composers would strive to create something more meaningful.
Confession time: i’m not remotely interested in Brahms. My love of 19th century music is pretty huge, yet all i know is that essentially everything i’ve encountered by Brahms has been of only the most ephemeral interest. i wondered if that might matter when approaching Detlev Glanert‘s Weites Land, which received its UK première also last Sunday, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The subtitle of the piece is “‘Musik mit Brahms’ for orchestra”, and Glanert speaks of incorporating the first eight notes from Brahms’ Fourth Symphony into the piece, in addition to creating a mix of his own voice with Brahms’ voice in “two layers”.
In practice, whatever you think about Brahms doesn’t really matter with regard to engaging with Weites Land (‘open land’). Taken on its own terms, it’s an engrossing orchestral work with an unexpected narrative that ultimately packs precisely the kind of disarming surprises that Benjamin Beckman so assiduously avoided in his piece. Once its tentative opening has passed – a collection of miniscule iotas in the high strings – Glanert pumps the whole thing up with the musical equivalent of steroids. Energy and muscle everywhere, pushing and driving on like a runaway train, its momentum continuing through post-climactic troughs and even a lyrical melodic line. This melody is so robust it’s as if it’s being sung by a body-builder, and as the piece scurries on, never letting up, Weites Land sounds like a piece trying to throw its weight around, demonstrating “don’t fuck with me” credentials. This unstoppability proves to be pretty exhilarating, moving apace through a softer, somewhat filmic episode with slow trombones into a shrill, pounding climax like transmitting Morse code with dazzling pulses of laser light.
Maybe its sacrilegious to say this, but when Brahms more obviously starts to get his foot in the door later on, the work’s earlier filmic qualities (in terms of both material and orchestration) meant that i couldn’t help thinking of John Williams’ movie scores. It seems that a subsequent climb-down in the music, two-thirds through, is just a lull before yet another eruption, and Glanert allows that suspicion to continue for ages, its strands of string melody continually tickled with little wind motifs that ensure things can’t come to a halt. Even a minute before the end, there’s still the sense that, any moment now, Weites Land will turn on a dime and unleash something epic at its close. But – spoiler alert – it doesn’t; the strings and winds meld over a regular pulse and then quietly, even discreetly, subside to nothing. It’s a tantalising, totally unpredictable turn of events that only makes the raw excitement and sheer scale from before seem all the more massive in hindsight, and the narrative as a whole feel authentic and imaginative. A genuinely exciting piece that, unlike literally everything i’ve heard by Brahms, left me wanting to listen to it immediately again afterwards.
HAVE YOUR SAY
Benjamin Beckman - Occidentalis
- Loved it! (16%, 6 Votes)
- Liked it (39%, 15 Votes)
- Meh (26%, 10 Votes)
- Disliked it (8%, 3 Votes)
- Hated it! (11%, 4 Votes)
Total Voters: 38
HAVE YOUR SAY
Detlev Glanert - Weites Land ('Musik mit Brahms' for orchestra)
- Loved it! (34%, 13 Votes)
- Liked it (29%, 11 Votes)
- Meh (21%, 8 Votes)
- Disliked it (8%, 3 Votes)
- Hated it! (8%, 3 Votes)
Total Voters: 38
And with that, Simon the Iconoclast is back! Oh, how I’ve missed thee!
Ah yes, I remember that you were always a big Brahms fan. I have to say I’m with Simon wholeheartedly on this one. Brahms is one of those composers who leaves me almost entirely cold. Still, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that…
Actually, for a long time (i.e. my teens and twenties) my Brahms diet consisted solely of the first symphony and piano concerto – the rest did nothing for me, and I even used to imagine that it was the opening of Symphony no. 2 that Tchaikovsky had particularly in mind when he used to describe Brahms as mediocre. Since then, I’ve gradually had my eyes opened, so there’s time for you yet, and there may even be time for Simon…
(…and from there, who knows? Maybe even Elgar…!)
I admire your optimism! You’re right, of course – I believe that all our tastes naturally change over time. There are certainly a couple of pieces by Brahms that I do like – Geistliches Lied for one, and some of the late piano pieces. Maybe one of these years I’ll finally come to appreciate his symphonies.
A personal breakthrough came with no.3, with its hard-to-scan mix of simple and compound time during the opening – not to mention that bass lurch upwards into the minor, which I never quite expect no matter how many times I hear it – coupled with the (for the era) highly unorthodox quiet endings to all four movements.