Nicholas Martin
Azalea Garden
Symphonies of Wind and Rain
Luke Bedford
Slow Music
Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper
Tree Line

Christopher Austin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 May, 2008
Venue: Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

Assembled by clarinettist Scott Lygate from mainly first-year students at the Royal Academy of Music, Azalea made its public debut with this short yet ambitious lunchtime concert whose programme was a statement of intent and demonstration of the players’ capabilities.

It began, appropriately enough, with music by a first-year undergraduate composer – Nicholas Martin, whose Azalea Garden transmutes a painting by Patrick Heron into an “étude-tableau” (the composer’s description) of harmonic iridescence and textural resource, as well as undoubted formal cohesion. 18 when he wrote the piece for the National Youth Sinfonietta, Martin is clearly an uncommon talent.

It made an ideal entrée into Anthony Payne’s Symphonies of Wind and Rain – an intriguing combination of intuitive motifs and systematic evolution, the latter at its densest in the ‘quodlibet’ that precedes a brief but atmospheric close. As often with Payne, elemental imagery provides the starting-point for a substantial and eventful discourse – one to which the members of Azalea were evidently attuned.

Next came two works by Luke Bedford that, composed separately, make for a judiciously contrasted diptych. Slow Music equates textural activity with harmonic stasis to effect a powerful momentum, while Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper draws on Luis Buñuel for music that evokes its title with an unpredictability whose violence is graphically but not gratuitously depicted towards the close.

The final piece returned the mood to something like that at the beginning. Premiered almost twenty years ago, Tree Line is among Toru Takemitsu’s most successful later works – pursuing its typically understated manner of variation with gentle insistence, and reaching a magical apotheosis in a final section that falls away to leave just the solo oboe sounding as if in evocation of an unruffled Arcady.

The performance, as throughout the recital, was a tribute to the dedication of these young players – as also the skill with which Christopher Austin had prepared them. Understandable that he joined in the ovation at the close: playing this adept in contemporary music would have been unthinkable from teenagers even a decade ago, and Azalea looks well set to scale further heights.

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