Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Contrasting Figures Julian Anderson Bayan Northcott

Contrasting figures, two very different premieres at the Proms.: Julian Anderson's Incantesimi and Bayan Northcott's   Concerto for Orchestra.  Both composers are big names in British music. Northcott's new work is more ambitious in scale, and impressive as a study of large forces. It seems tailor made for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, reminiscent of standard orchestral fare, big on full-bodied tutti and brass effects, lovely, rippling passages for winds.  A good and worthy piece, though I suspect it needs a more dynamic performance.  Please read the review in 5:4, a very good site on new music, which I wish ran year round rather than just in summer.   "The work comports itself in a conflicted way, on the one hand sounding laboured and stylistically somewhat dated (a sort of ‘post-neo-romanticism’ if you’ll forgive the construction; think Walton with plenty of late 20th century twists), yet with a stream of invention sufficiently cogent to lend it a veneer of freshness. Considering this is Northcott’s first work for orchestra, it displays an impressive combination of complexity and clarity, although many of the ideas could do with a bit less stodge (making it sound as though the conductor is stirring treacle). A little over halfway through it attains a climax that’s made up of many elements; it’s a really nice moment, enhanced by the orchestra’s subsequent enigmatic withdrawal into the middleground. This, and the work’s more pensive episodes, are by far the most immersive; Northcott’s faster music (which dominates overall) feels shallow by comparison, and the abrupt end is an entirely unconvincing cop-out, But notwithstanding these difficulties, plus the fact that it’s not really a concerto for orchestra at all, more a symphonic poem, the piece makes for an interesting enough diversion."

All music is "abstract" in the sense that sounds aren't as explicit as words, and even text can be elusive.  Thomas Larcher's Symphony no 2 "Cenotaph" might have initially been inspired by images of Syrian refugees, but that doesn't at all mean that the music is literal, in any way.  Like Strauss's Alpine Symphony, programmes are like scaffolding, useful as an aid to construction. What really counts is the building itself.  Please read here what I wrote about Larcher and Strauss, and on the programmatic structure.   In any case, music is processed by human minds, so it's not possible to  experience  listening without some human input: what one hears depends on an individual's emotional range, expectations and experience.

And so to Julian Anderson's Incantesimi.. commissioned for Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.  In theory this piece was inspired by an orrery, a multi-dimensional creation designed to demonstrate the movements and interactions of planets in the universe, each with their different orbits and speeds of  traverse. Science, thus, abstract concepts made visible, helping ordinary people understand the universe. Anderson has always been a remarkably "visual" composer : some people just are. But that doesn't mean that his music is literal.  Anderson describes the five elements in his piece as a Nocturne which has five musical ideas juggled in perpetual motion, interacting but never all at the same time. "Instead of being an outward display of flamboyance, it's an inward display of lyrical qualities and calm meditation, like Giant Chamber Music".

 Thus the growling lower registers from which clean, clear lines emerge. A cor anglais solo, then.  Exquisite, glittering, fragmenting sounds. All held together by a sense of circular movement, shifts in volume and tempi, highlighted by sudden single bell-like chords, then percussion and high winds.  On the re-broadcast, the announcer says the percussive clicks represent a Japanese night watchman signalling all is well. Nuts, I thought. Nightwatchmen exist even outside Japan. If there's extra-musical reference here, consider the Nightwatchman in Die Meistersinger, who signals the restoration of order on chaos, hence the elegant structure of the piece.  Much more than a tone poem, it's a mini symphony in less than 15 minutes, totally to the point.  I hadn't heard Anderson's comments before listening, so I was delighted that I'd guessed the idea without having to be told. Anderson's Incantesimi. is definitely a keeper, proof that good, original new music can appeal without dumbing down or being elitist. Fascinating, imaginative and really quite magical.

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