Birmingham Conservatoire SO – 26 March

They Once Were [First performance]
Tranquil Abiding
Soleil Noir/Chitra
James Wood
Autumn Voices
Piano Concerto in G

Karin Norlén (violin)

Pei-Chun Liao (piano)

Thallein Ensemble

Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra
Lionel Friend

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 March, 2004
Venue: Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham

Contemporary music concerts are never easy to programme or to organise, so all credit to Birmingham Conservatoire for an ’end of term’ concert that succeeded on both counts.

Featured were two pieces by Jonathan Harvey and a new orchestral work by Tom Ingoldsby – whose Wave Etchings piano concerto made a positive impression a couple of years ago. In fulfilling a Millennium Commission from the Conservatoire, Ingoldsby was inspired by a Rodin sculpture (apparently his only such) of an aged woman entitled “She Who Was ’La Belle Heaulmiere’”. This study of human frailty connected with the idea of bereavement to make possible the present work – a 13-minute overture that the composer describes as a “… small and emotive gesture celebrating the lives of some of those now missed”. The peremptory opening gesture reappears – more or less literally – at crucial junctures: vigorous and expressive ideas are contrasted in what seems likely to be a sonata-type movement – but, after an intense developmental episode, the music subsides into a long slow section, replete with haunting woodwind solos and ethereal harmonies. Only with a gradual crescendo is the initial momentum regained, after which the music works through a compressed reprise of earlier ideas – ending with a defiantly affirmative coda.

They Once Were received a committed premiere by the Conservatoire players under the guidance of Lionel Friend – the musicians enjoying the challenge of a piece pitched near the limit of undergraduate capabilities. Concert overtures are not so fashionable these days, but one as impressively shaped and deeply felt as Ingoldsby’s ought to persuade organisers that the genre has plenty of life in it yet.

The works by Jonathan Harvey were well chosen to demonstrate the versatility of his composing for both orchestral and chamber forces. Tranquil Abiding is an enticing way into his spiritual concerns. The meditative feel, with its underlying ’breathing’ rhythm and gong-strokes resonating through the orchestral fabric, is easily absorbed on a conceptual as well as musical level, and there’s no doubting the depths plumbed gently but insistently as the piece evolves. Soleil Noir/Chitra scales resources down to nine instruments (here the very capable Thallein Ensemble), though live electronics extend the timbral range considerably – not least some sonorous tuba writing and sensuous detail for flute, harp and percussion. Inspired by Gérard de Nerval’s introspective texts, as well as by Tagore’s play around a female character from the Mahabharata, the outcome is a dual evocation of qualities ostensibly European and Indian – with a quietly determined fusing of means in the latter stages.

Separating these two Harvey pieces was Autumn Voices, in which James Wood explores the changing coloration of autumn leaves via a systematic descent though violin harmonics – heard against an electronic backdrop of refracted sonorities and birdsong-like sounds. Perhaps rather too long at 15 minutes, but sensitively realised by Karin Norlén.

And to finish – Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto: among the most performed in the repertoire these days, but good to hear – especially when given with such fluency and elegance by Taiwanese pianist Pei-Chun Liao. She made the most of the opening movement’s alternately humorous and eloquent repartee with the orchestra, and brought out much of the Adagio’s vein of wistful regret – enhanced by some poetic woodwind playing. The finale’s good-natured slapstick was dispatched with relish – ending the concerto, and the concert, on a high.

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