Friday, 10 February 2012

Sally Beamish - Scotland and beyond

Sally Beamish is a composer much in the news at the moment. Feb 2nd saw the performance of her arrangement of Debussy's Suite for Cello and Orchestra  by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, with Steven Isserlis as soloist, broadcast live by BBC Radio Three from Glasgow's City Halls and available via the 'Listen Again' facility on the iplayer. Sally Beamish has beautifully orchestrated the two surviving movements and arranged three other pieces to sit alongside them, making a substantial 'new' work and this was its Scottish premiere.

The ever-popular Isserlis was undoubtedly the star of this show, and in particular his playing – immediately after the interval - of Two Hebrew Melodies, which opened an all-Ravel second half. The haunting Kaddish (Hebrew prayer for the dead) has been notably played as an encore by Daniel Hope on the occasion of the death of Ligeti (when he happened to be performing with the CBSO in Birmingham's Symphony Hall) and arranged not only for violin but also for viola (for example on the recording Violent Viola by the Dutch violist Esther Apituley. I like these other arrangements for the high strings, which perhaps are closer in their range to the human voice, but Isserlis' playing was haunting and beautiful, the highlight of the evening for me.

He also excelled in the premiere of the work he had commissioned – the completion of a fragment for Debussy's Suite for Cello and Orchestra  by  Sally Beamish. She has beautifully orchestrated the two surviving movements and arranged three other pieces to sit alongside them, making a substantial 'new' work and this was its Scottish premiere. There is a gradual transition in the third movement  from Debussy's sound world to her own. One of the highlights of the work is an energetic fourth movement with strong dance-like rhythms, which is then followed by a beautiful slow movement which concludes the piece with the addition of a just slightly faster coda.This is a complex and interesting work which deserves more than one hearing to fully understand it. The combination of French and Celtic sound-worlds is an intriguing one.

This was logically preceded – to open the concert – with Debussy's La Mer,  a work likely to be heard often in this anniversary year. This Scottish rendering was big and passionate; a powerful and stormy sea rather than the light ethereal watery world this work can sometimes conjure up. This was an intriguing and quite pleasing interpretation, if at just a few times a little heavy.

The all-Debussy  first half was followed by an all-Ravel second half, maintaining a French theme throughout the evening. The Hebrew Melodies were followed by Une Barque sur l'Eau and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, with La Valse concluding the programme, the dance theme of these last two works mirroring the dance-like conclusion of the Debussy/Beamish suite which concluded the first half.

A violist as well as a composer, Sally Beamish has written extensively and sensitively for strings. In addition to a new string quartet premiered at last year's BBC Chamber Proms, and earlier two quartets, she has created three concerti for her own instrument. Also one each for violin and cello, and a series of pieces for cello and piano dedicated to Robert Irvine, by whom they have been recorded on the BIS label BIS CD 1171, with the composer's own accompaniment.

On  Feb 3rd, she was interviewed by Suzy Klein on BBC Radio Three's In Tune about a piece she had written for the OAE, unique in being a new work written specifically for period instruments. Entitled  Spinal Chord,  it is inspired by the experiences of a friend of the composer who broke her spine in a riding accident; the slowness of the music reflects the slowness of the recovery. It is to be premiered on Sunday 5th February at Southampton's Turner Sims Concert Hall, and performed in London on 10th Feb with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio Three's 'Hear and Now' on 21st April.

Sally Beamish's talent though extends beyond the stringed territory, taking in collaborations with the saxophonist John Harle and the flautist Sharan Bazaly to choose but examples. Further details of her output can be found on her own informative website, which is linked to a generous and high quality listening and streaming facility provided jointly by BIS and Naxos, where several works of these works can be heard. Sally Beamish will also be BBC Radio Three's 'Composer of the Week' in the week commencing 27th February.  Next month sees another premiere for her, this time the world premiere of a new Percussion Concerto commissioned by the SCO and premiered by them on Saturday March 17th at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall. Coverage on this site is promised.

by Juliet Williams

No comments: