i headed up the M5 to Birmingham last Sunday for a concert given by the CBSO Youth Orchestra at Symphony Hall. For many people in the audience, i suppose the highlight would have been two works by Berlioz: the concert opened with the Roman Carnival Overture and closed with the Symphonie Fantastique. But i was there for the opportunity to hear a couple of rarities in UK concert halls, Grażyna Bacewicz‘s Viola Concerto and a world première from Icelandic composer Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir.
Before i get into these two particular pieces, i want to make a tangential but related aside. i was doubly excited about the fact that Bergrún’s music was being performed, partly because i’ve been impressed by her work on many occasions, but also, more generally, because it’s music by an Icelandic composer who isn’t Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Of course, i’m consistently impressed by Anna’s music and have explored it on 5:4 on numerous occasions, in addition to featuring her in one of my Dialogues. Yet for several years now, UK ensembles and concert programmers have clearly indicated that she’s pretty much the only Icelandic composer they care about, and by implication the only one worth knowing about, with the result that the rich diversity of Icelandic contemporary music is entirely ignored, unrepresented and unheard.
That’s bad enough but, unbelievably, it’s a problem compounded by Iceland’s own flagship orchestra, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. One would expect them to act as an ambassador for what’s actually going on in Iceland, yet in their previous UK tour in February 2020 (just before the pandemic took hold), the only native music they played was Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Aeriality. In April this year they’ll be back and, once again, the only Icelandic music being featured is by Anna Thorvaldsdottir (METACOSMOS). It’s worth mentioning that this is not a problem unique to Iceland: when the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra comes to the UK in May, rather than choosing something new and interesting from their broad range of fascinating composers, they’ll be taking the same predictable path of least resistance and – surprise, surprise – performing some Arvo Pärt. All of this indicates the most simple-minded, lazy, unimaginative thinking that wants at all costs to avoid taking any risks. It’s perhaps understandable that UK concert organisers aren’t fully au fait with the contemporary music of other countries, but their own performers have no excuse, and so to do this is reprehensible, stupid, and a wilful squandering of the opportunity to expand foreign audiences’ knowledge and understanding of the diverse wonders in their musical culture.
The CBSO YO concert was conducted by that great champion of new music, Ilan Volkov. i’d been in Birmingam a few days earlier for the midweek CBSO concert, also conducted by Volkov (which i reviewed for Bachtrack), and was struck on that occasion by how often he indicated he wanted less from the orchestra, never letting them get too carried away. His body language with the CBSO YO throughout Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir’s Striations could not have been more different. For some reason, despite sounding confident in the Roman Carnival Overture, now they became completely timid, seemingly terrified of playing anything too loudly or with excess force. Perhaps, being charitable, it was a side effect of wanting to do justice to the work’s delicate textural consistency, peppered with soft dynamics.
Yet Striations gets more demonstrative later on, an effect that was more or less nullified by the CBSO YO’s persistently pianissimo performance. Volkov could hardly have been clearer, his hands and arms practically screaming “MORE!” from them again and again, but they all completely ignored him. It was therefore impossible to make out the behavioural and timbral subtleties that are so crucial to the work’s soundscape, reducing Striations to a minimal, rather bland sequence of slight changes in tone colour. At its best one could just about make out the possibility of seam-like streaks, like thin slivers of light, occasionally being marshalled into pulsing waves, but these were tantalising hints of detail in an otherwise frustratingly opaque performance. Striations is among the CBSO’s Centenary Commissions, so one hopes that the CBSO themselves might also perform the work in due course, and give a more faithful account of what’s actually in the score. And: it’s an insanely radical suggestion, i know, but perhaps the Iceland Symphony Orchestra could also slip it into their forthcoming UK concerts?
It was pretty clear that the CBSO YO felt most sure of what they were doing in Berlioz’s music, though it took until the last two movements of the Symphonie Fantastique for them to really get into the swing of it. Yet despite that, the work that overall sounded the most clear and coherent in this concert was Grażyna Bacewicz’s Viola Concerto. In hindsight, this may have had something to do with Bacewicz’s strange but compelling musical language, where the strong lyrical impulse of the viola – performed here by Lawrence Power – is not so much accompanied by as thrust into the midst of a great deal of clamour and clatter. However, these disparate motivations are united by both inhabiting a strange, unpredictable landscape, where musical ideas become fragmented in a disorienting state of flux. The chop and change approach to structure that Bacewicz uses seemed to have the effect of focusing the minds of the CBSO YO players, such that there was never any doubt about the connection between them and the viola, and each shift in the narrative conveyed a real sense of concentration, and thereby conviction.
There was a nice impression of influence emanating outwards from Power, causing the orchestra to become impassioned in the first movement, seemingly as a direct consequence of his lyrical material. As the work progressed, though erratic Bacewicz’s language became more and more familiar, its constant variability conveying a perceived need to never allow things to continue in one manner for too long. The relationship became gently stretched in the second movement, Power appearing to enter a distracted mode of expression, playing to himself rather than aiming to connect either to the orchestra or to us (though this only made the music more intriguing). Bacewicz refocuses in the last movement, which Volkov rendered as light and playful, still in flux but now settling into different grooves, somewhat halting – like changing gears – but with more cohesive momentum. Its sense of direction was as capricious as ever, but it was really fun to be taken along for such an unusual ride.