wed 17/10/2018

BBC NOW, Alexandre Bloch, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff review - tonal music in an avant-garde sense | reviews, news & interviews

BBC NOW, Alexandre Bloch, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff review - tonal music in an avant-garde sense

BBC NOW, Alexandre Bloch, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff review - tonal music in an avant-garde sense

Brilliant concert justifies the Vale of Glamorgan Festival's commitment to living composers

The BBC NOW: brilliant players and an appreciative audience

This is the 50th Vale of Glamorgan Festival, and as its founder and director, John Metcalf, reminded us in a brief post-interval speech, he has been at all of them. Indeed the festival has increasingly mapped itself on to his personal view of what a modern music festival should be: it should, he would argue, contain only music by living composers; and they should only be composers that he, John Metcalf, admires. 

It sounds like a recipe for the ultimate niche event. But, in fact, it has steadily grown into one of the most impressive, sharply profiled new music festivals anywhere in Europe, an event defined as much by the kind of avant-garde modernism you will emphatically not hear at it, as by the kind you will.

How the music relates to the poem, line-by-line, is a mystery. But it’s irresistibly affecting

It would be easy to write the Metcalf vision off as an endless diet of Arvo Pärt and John Taverner, composers he certainly has cultivated in the past. But yesterday’s opening concert of the 2018 festival by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales made nonsense of such over-simplifications. From start to finish it was an evening of vibrant contrasts, explosive movement challenged by lyrical reflection: above all, an evening of tonal discourse reinstated, not in the reactionary sense of that disappointed Sixties generation of anti-modernists who still to this day bemoan William Glock’s influence on BBC music, but in the enriched sense of a tonality that has absorbed and tamed post-war modernism and reinterpreted it as a continuation of the history it once rejected.

Qigang Chen’s L’éloignement, which opened the concert, might well, for instance, slip into the repertoire of any string orchestra that could cope with Tippett’s double concerto or Britten’s Bridge variations. Yet its vivid contrasts and extreme refinements of texture go well beyond those works into a region inhabited by memories of Ligeti and Lutoslawski, without ever for a moment abandoning the overriding sense of key. Chen (pictured below) was born in Shanghai but studied with Messaien in Paris; and his music beautifully combines an oriental inwardness (captured in the Chinese folksong that provides its lyrical moments) with an almost aggressive dynamism  closer perhaps to Ravel: and Ravel-like in its lucid, finely “heard” orchestration.

concert Qigang ChenA more obviously substantial achievement is Chen’s Jiang Tcheng Tse (For the Sake of Art), a co-commission by the festival and here given its European premiere. This is an ambitious choral-orchestral setting of a profoundly moving poem by the 11th century poet Su Shi, in which the poet mourns his long-dead wife, feeling her constant presence but unable “to converse with you and whisper my longing”. Writing for a choir he assumes, dangerously, to be as professionally competent as the average symphony orchestra, Chen transfers to it the richly textured close harmonies of his instrumental style, in search of a certain thickness or concentration of emotion, leavened with a kind of bravura mouth-music for solo soprano (the extraordinary Meng Meng), using a technique apparently borrowed from Chinese opera. 

Whether or not the singing, by the BBC National Chorus of Wales, was accurate I can’t say, but the total effect was exceptionally powerful, not least because Chen has a strong sense of large-scale form and a mastery of the art of transition. In both these works the interleaving of slow and quick music and the management of climax are handled with immense skill, while the dense textures never lose harmonic direction. How the music relates to the poem, line-by-line, is a mystery. But it’s irresistibly affecting as a whole.

The French conductor Alexandre Bloch seemed completely on top of its difficulties, and he also directed spectacular performances of a half-hour concerto for orchestra called Psalmos by his compatriot Thierry Escaich, and  more discreetly  Bent Sørensen’s Trumpet Concerto, a piece that assigns most of its considerable brilliance to the soloist. The orchestra’s principal trumpet, Philippe Schartz, made light of it, while the orchestra acted like an appreciative audience, rubbing their hands, tapping their instruments, and occasionally humming their approval. Escaich expects a lot more of the rank and file, and got it. Psalmos is a noisy, sometimes overwritten fantasy on a series of Lutheran chorales, but is never less than exhilarating. The select audience did their bit and cheered it to the rafters. 

An evening of vibrant contrasts, explosive movement challenged by lyrical reflection

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Editor Rating: 
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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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