Mosaic [Concerto for Orchestra, First Movement]
Shooting Stars [World premiere]
Slow Dawn [World premiere]
Restless Birds before the Dark Moon [UK premiere]
Elements [London premiere]
John Harle (saxophone)
Richard Benjafield (percussion)
Guildhall Symphonic Wind Ensemble
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 24 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This concert got off to a disappointing start with the news that the Harrison Birtwistle premiere wouldn’t take place. In its stead a second piece by Michael Berkeley (Shooting Stars) was offered.
Mosaic is the first movement of Sir Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Orchestra, originally scored without strings, and made an arresting opening to the evening, and set a standard of invention only intermittently maintained. The players took a while to settle, but the Stravinsky-like woodwind-writing (slightly destabilised pastoralism), which is contrasted, then combined with more vigorous ideas on the brass was acutely balanced, although the piano, tuba and percussion (timpani excepted) were rather prominent, a ‘problem’ mainly due to positioning.
The two works of Michael Berkeley made a fine contrast. The toccata-like Shooting Stars is a pugnacious, slightly tongue-in-cheek miniature that reminded occasionally of Malcolm Arnold. There was much to delight the ear, so too in Slow Dawn, written in memory of Timothy Reynish’s son, William. As the composer relates, the sun (tuba) gradually appears. Away from the music’s description the music suggests slow-moving strata (perhaps the absence of Birtwistle wasn’t so grievous) and reptilian intertwining of lines; craggy and primordial, the warmth of the sun seemed to be beginning another day in a non-human landscape. But the conventional final bars seemed too easily achieved, added on, and the use of a lone string bass, isolated in position, was undetectable to the ear.
Berkeley’s pieces held the interest. David Kechley’s Restless Birds did not and outstayed its welcome early on into its 15-minute duration. Scale passages and chorales, gratuitously decorated with over-used, soon-irksome percussion, and suggested limited ideas and a restricted palette. John Harle put on a good show.
So, too, did Richard Benjafield in Elements, which, while inventive, wasn’t interesting enough to sustain the work’s 30 minutes. Benjafield’s urbane professionalism was a pleasure in itself, whether throwing a tambourine to one of the other percussionists with spot-on aim, picking up one of her drum sticks that had fallen to the floor, and strolling round the array of instruments laid out across the platform with masterly ease. There was subtlety in his playing, too, although the ‘dead’ sounds of dustbin, wheel hubs and assorted metal sheets lost their appeal long ago. Once more, a lone string bass had no aural effect. Adam Gorb claims that Elements is built upon musical motifs from Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle; maybe, but this listener detected none – rather, there were allusions to Tippett’s Ritual Dances, Holst’s Mercury, a suggestion of Britten, and the wind machine conjured Ravel’s Daphnis and Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica (sic). Not a bad piece, in fact, just too long, and some of the punchy ideas (including a moment of independence of the conductor) proved compelling, so too the melodic (if not necessarily melodious) writing.
Magnus Lindberg’s Gran Duo – scored for the same ensemble as Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (in its 1947 version) adding a bass clarinet (and, it seems, one of the trumpeter’s doubles on a ‘piccolo’ variant) – is a superb piece of sustained musical thinking with a logistical overview that unites its carolling, fanfaring and piping; the scoring is lucid, the textures translucent, the direction unequivocal, even in passages of Berio-like decoration. Terrific piece! A shame that the sonic resolution and pregnant pauses of the closing bars were interrupted by two females in the back row who were more interested in unwrapping sweets – ignoramuses – but the performance was magnificent.
Indeed, although the musical quality was ‘up and down’, there was no doubting the performances themselves displayed the outstanding qualities of the Guildhall’s musicians under Timothy Reynish.