Momentum – Mark-Anthony Turnage (17-19 January)

Written by: Colin Anderson

“It’s both an honour and nerve-wracking. I’m the youngest person they’ve done.” Mark-Anthony Turnage is the latest composer given the weekend treatment by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre. Is Momentum, the overall title for this concentrated period of films, talks and concerts, a time for retrospection? “No, never, any looking back is dangerous. My mentor in that way is Miles Davis. What I know I’ll learn is the pieces that I’m really pleased with and how annoying I find others.” True to a composer enjoying many commissions and looking-forward, Mark has four world premieres during the weekend. Slide Stride is a piano quintet “dedicated to Richard Rodney Bennett; it’s the most jazzy chamber piece I’ve written. It’s got a manic stride-piano part; the slide thing is the shifting harmonies in the strings.” Quite a contrast, then, to the intimate, often very beautiful pieces on Black Box BBM 1065. Then there’s The Game is Over for chorus with “a funny orchestra of brass, percussion and low strings. It’s debatable what the piece is about; the text is obscure and can be interpreted in different ways.” The three-part Etudes and Elegies concludes with the premiere of A Quiet Life – “very quiet and slow, which I’ve not quite done before.” And there’s the first public performance of the revised Fractured Lines, for percussionists Peter Erskine and Evelyn Glennie, and already recorded on Chandos CHAN 10018.

For that CD’s booklet I interviewed Mark. We spoke then about his music being dark and intense. While that’s not necessarily by design or absolutely typical, pieces like Greek and Blood on the Floor, both to be played during the weekend (and available on Decca), reflect social issues in an open and realistic way. The Torn Fields, a baritone song-cycle, returns Turnage to the First War and to his opera for ENO, The Silver Tassie (on CD too), from which there are no quotes save “the middle Wilfred Owen poem is the scenario for Tassie. It’s the poem that O’Casey read that inspired him to write the play – about a young man who goes off to war and loses his legs.” Such references invoke Britten’s War Requiem, a composer sharing the weekend with Turnage. “I love Britten, and you can’t argue with the technique. Sinfonia da Requiem involves me; I’m very affected by it technically and emotionally.” There’s also Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, “an unbelievable masterpiece. You hear that first chord and you’re grabbed.” Beethoven too – “I was obsessed with Beethoven when I was kid.” At the Guildhall Michael Tippett’s “individuality and optimism, which I can’t do, he’s recognisable from the first bar” can be savoured.

A two-week rehearsal schedule – “confusing if you’re trying to write something new!” – leads to the weekend. “The fun is working with all these friends,” which include John Taylor, Dave Carpenter and Peter Erskine. They will “reinterpret a few things of mine. John Taylor’s a wonderful pianist, world-class. I’m providing lead sheets with chord changes; they’re going to be more creative than me.” The afore-mentioned Mr R.R. Bennett and Claire Martin bring jazz to St Giles’s – on a Sunday! – including “things like Joni Mitchell songs.”

Turnage suggests The Game is Over as “English-sounding.” I’ve previously gone for an American tag, not fully accepted by the composer. It’s probably the jazz and blues aspect to Mark’s challenging yet communicative idiom, one that reflects being alive, that suggests this. “You do it for yourself, then the musicians, then you hope for an audience. If a composer’s contriving to be liked, then I don’t respect them. Certain pieces of mine confuse people, but it’s done through honesty. People think the jazz thing gets me a bigger audience. I’m not doing it for that; I love that music. I’ve worked with classical musicians who are far better known.” Describing his music as “dense and emotional,” Turnage insists that the Momentum weekend is “for other people, and I hope they turn up. The performances will be good. When you’re working with this calibre of musician, you don’t worry about how it’s going to be played.”

  • The above was originally published in What’s On in London on 8 January and is reproduced here with permission
  • Barbican
  • Box Office 020 7638 8891
  • All concerts broadcast on BBC Radio 3
  • Sunday 19th at 4.30, BCMG concert, The Torn Fields is now replaced by Twice Through The Heart

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