sun 27/05/2018

Judith Weir, Bath Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Judith Weir, Bath Festival

Judith Weir, Bath Festival

A fine folk-filled celebration of Britain's greatest female composer

Judith Weir: what she has to say is never less than absorbing

In general, I’m no particular fan of composers talking in public about their own music. My family suggests that this is because I’m hoping to get the job of talking about it myself. But the real reason is that, on the whole, composers don’t tell the truth about their work – and indeed why should they? Creative work is a mysterious and impenetrable process, and it’s a very modern, right-to-know sort of assumption that those who do it should also be able to explain it. Probably nobody is. But people naturally suppose that when the horse opens its mouth, the oracle will speak. I would say, on the other hand, that the composers who seem to talk best about their work are not, as a rule, the best composers.

Judith Weir, who was the subject of what wasn’t but might have been called a “Composer Portrait” on the final weekend of the Bath Festival, may be an exception; but this is partly because she tends to avoid talking about her actual music, and instead describes the things she does in the lee of composing. And since she is a brilliant teacher and a conscientious provider, what she has to say about these activities is never less than absorbing.

It’s true that the afternoon event in the Chapel Arts Centre was at times a bit like a school open day. We were called on to admire some fairly marginal scraps of improvisation, storytelling and workshopping, pinned, as it were, to the platform; we peered voyeuristically at a reconstructed corner of Judith’s studio in the basement café (and resisted the temptation to pinch some important-looking sketches for her new Bregenz opera); and we opened our lungs enthusiastically in the cantus firmus of her carol “My Guardian Angel”, while the Bath Spa University Chamber Choir sang the difficult bits. There was also a somewhat noisy showing of (but no information about) the Weir film Armida and Other Stories. But the best part of the programme, apart from a couple of other short choral works which the choir managed with aplomb in the driest, most unhelpful acoustic imaginable, was Judith’s short conversation with the festival’s director, Joanna McGregor. They talked only about background matters, about school and university and about how and where they work.  But since they are both practising musicians, this was good fly-on-the-wall stuff, and could profitably have been extended.

The morning concert in the Assembly Rooms had presented us with Weir’s music plain and without apology, revealing its community aspect as a direct offshoot of a creative inspiration whose folk derivations suggest a community music heard historically. Her one-woman opera, King Harald’s Saga, for instance, came across as a kind of bardic comedy, in Elin Manahan Thomas’s stylish, quick-witted performance, while the more complex textures of instrumental works like the Piano Quartet and, especially, Distance and Enchantment (finely played by the Lawson Trio with the violist Rebecca Jones) derive very obviously from certain types of group peasant singing, rather in the way that Bartók invented a complicated Modernist language out of the strange folk singing he had discovered in the wilds of Hungary.

Weir’s music, it’s true, is mostly less forbidding, partly I imagine because her source music lacks the primitive edge of his. Needless to say this is elective on her part. These two quartets are brilliantly intricate and energetic, but they don’t cultivate the harshness of the bizarre scales and mistuned hurdy-gurdies Bartók so loved. They might even acknowledge some distant affinity with the simple Welsh folk songs eloquently sung here by Elin Manahan Thomas, or with the Gaelic harp music of Catriona McKay, which doesn’t disguise its debt to the genteel 19th-century arrangements in which most of us first encountered what we thought of as folksong.

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