Proms 2023: the premières (Part 3)

by 5:4

Staunch conservatives don’t merely hold sway over our current government but also, it seems, our concert halls, judging by the latest desolation of premières at this year’s Proms. In the case of the Prelude and Fugue in G major by Rachel Laurin, posthumously premièred in Isabelle Demers’ organ recital, i was honestly left completely baffled about why the piece needed to exist at all. Don’t organists already have way more than enough of this kind of generic noodleporridge to waste time filling gaps in church services?

Similar in tone, but far more grandiose, was ATHOS, composed by Jon Hopkins and subsequently “arranged” by Jules Buckley, who also conducted the first performance by the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra. Hopkins talked beforehand about wanting to write something with a “devotional feel” but “not religious”. This kind of thing seems to be a sign of the times, music catering for the transition period as humanity moves away from religion towards rationality. Audiences certainly seem to love the noise that devotion makes, even if its “reverence” (for want of a better word) flaps around randomly in search of something, anything, to grasp onto. The particular brand of devotion demonstrated by ATHOS – we might call it “pietainment” – was the absolute epitome of ersatz emotion. Faint whiffs of Barber’s Adagio in the halting opening choral minutes, suggestions of something more Zimmerish in what followed. Hopkins’ music has always tended to be characterised by a tendency to plink and plonk rather aimlessly, and using this as the basis for the work’s enormous climax just seemed overbearing, ugly and downright vulgar. No doubt the faithful will convince themselves they received something significant; musical transubstantiation?

There was a similarly prefabricated approach to weight and drama in Samy Moussa‘s Symphony No. 2, given its European première by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New. i’ve not heard his first attempt in order to compare, but his second symphony often suggested he might be something of a wannabe Bruckner. What characterised the symphony most was its obsession with rising and falling sequences, always travelling and never arriving, though not so much suggesting Shepard tones as simply a fundamental indecision about where to go or why. A briefly mournful quality that emerged in the opening minutes was soon cast aside, never to be heard again, replaced by spritely, hopping, minimalistic momentum and slower-moving lines behind. The motoric core of the work occasionally gave way to contrasting asides – a short bit of jewellery box music here, a flugelhorn solo there – but it was impossible not to hear much of the work as padding for something genuinely significant that, ultimately, turned out not to exist. (And the less said about the wretched cheesy final chord, the better.)

Though far less lofty and superficial, Judith Weir‘s Begin Afresh, premièred by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, nonetheless felt just as disposable, another example where, despite lots of activity, at no point did anything seem to present itself as a cogent, worthwhile idea. Supposedly divided into three sections – April, October, February – as it was it was difficult to hear any meaningful progression through its endlessly safe twiddles and vague tremors. Again i found myself wondering: are all these composers simply preaching to their respective already-converted disciples? Begin Afresh was at its best when Weir turned away from melodic navel-gazing and ventured into broader, less grounded territory, but there wasn’t much of this. Nothing at all about it seemed to warrant the title’s second word.

While most of Carlos Simon‘s Four Black American Dances sadly settled for clichés, the exception was its second movement, ‘Waltz’. Here, Simon fashioned the idea, rather than the actuality, of a waltz, emerging from tremolando strings with a surprisingly angular, erratic melodic contour. Concomitantly, the harmonies were kept on their toes such that the piece never became entirely immersed in its own tendency to pastiche (which dominated the other movements). Passing through a more intimate, soloistic episode, when the strings picked up the thread again there was still the sense of a searching melodic line feeling its way forward spontaneously, governed by only a loose definition of what constitutes a ‘waltz’. If only the other three dances, ‘Ring Shout’, ‘Tap!’ and ‘Holy Dance’, had shown such an individual approach as this, instead of opting for faceless, generic formulations.

Julia Adolphe

Setting itself far apart from this lamentation of mediocrity was Makeshift Castle, by US composer Julia Adolphe, given its first European performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. Perhaps its most compelling aspect was a twin sense of identity, caught between attitudes that tended either toward punchy energy or sustained lyricality. The work’s opening moments established the paradigm, forceful yet restrained, abruptly opening out into brass reports and slower melodic moments all falling over each other. After which these parallel tendencies didn’t so much compete as become more and more revealed as mutually sympathetic character traits in a unified, multifaceted music filled with capricious drama.

The lyrical side was often impressively elusive, as in a striking passage around five minutes in where a violin melody grew stronger to the point of shining, momentarily seeming to dissipate but continuing in a more vague but still tangibly lyrical strain. Likewise the more boisterous side, growing in weight but often not clearly identifying what exactly that weight consisted of or amounted to. Around 10 minutes in, this led to a large plateau that entirely avoided becoming a conventional climax, continuing to sidestep concrete ideas in favour of a more telling and imaginative air of suggestion. By the end it was hard to know whether the players comprised one universal train of thought or multiple interconnected ones, but either way, the unity of the orchestra was never in doubt. Adolphe kept Makeshift Castle unpredictable to the last, invoking the work’s opening moments but then immediately fizzling them, reducing everything, via soft strings, to a single, faint clarinet.

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