Judith Weir: Telling The Tale – The Art of Chamber Music … The Vanishing Bridegroom

“The Art of Chamber Music”

American Rounds
Music for 247 Strings
Arise! Arise! You Slumbering Sleepers
Piano Quartet
On such a night as this is!
What sound will chase elephants away?
The Art of Touching the Keyboard
Weaver of Grass

The Schubert Ensemble [Simon Blendis (violin), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello), Peter Buckoke (double bass) & William Howard (piano)] with Judith Kleinman (double bass)

“The Vanishing Bridegroom”

The Vanishing Bridegroom

Bride / Wife / Mother – Ailish Tynan
Daughter – Anna Stéphany
Lover / Friend / Preacher – Andrew Tortise Lover
Bridegroom / Husband / Father – Owen Gilhooly
Doctor / Policeman / Stranger – Jonathan Lemalu
Narrator – Stephen Jeffes
Dying Man – Andrew Murgatroyd
Youngest Son – Christopher Bowen
Middle Son – Edward Goater
Eldest Son – Edward Price
Bride’s Father – Simon Birchall
Good Robber – Paul Haas Curievici
Bad Robber 1 – Nicolas Simeha
Bad Robber 2 – Jonathan Saunders
Woman 1 – Olivia Robinson
Woman 2 – Siân Menna
Woman 3 – Lynette Alcántara

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Annilese Miskimmon – Director


Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: 19 January, 2008
Venue: Jerwood Hall (LSO St Luke’s) & Barbican Hall, London

A long weekend of performances spread throughout the spaces of the Barbican Centre and neighbouring locations gave the opportunity to hear works by Judith Weir in all the genres she has explored: chamber music, orchestral and choral music, songs and opera. The twenty-first consecutive ‘composer weekend’ organised by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Barbican, it placed Weir in a line of succession to composers including Berio, Birtwistle, Messiaen, Henze and Gubaidulina, as well as younger British figures like Mark-Anthony Turnage and James MacMillan.

Weir is not the type of composer to depart radically from traditional genres and instrumentations. But nor is she the type to imitate what previous composers have done with them. There was no electronic music here, and no solo instrumental music founded on extended playing techniques; but nor is there a symphony or a concerto among her orchestral works (except for the avowedly anti-Romantic Piano Concerto, for soloist and an ensemble of just nine solo strings), and despite the noticeable strings-and-piano focus of her chamber music she has written only one string quartet (heard at the Guildhall School a few days before the Weekend).

The chamber music was the focus of the Saturday afternoon recital given by the Schubert Ensemble, Weir’s close collaborators for many years now – indeed pianist, William Howard, participated in the premieres of the two earliest works on this programme, Music for 247 strings (1981) and The Art of Touching the Keyboard (1983). Music for 247 strings, Weir’s ironic title for her violin and piano duo, refers to the total number of strings possessed by the two instruments involved: four on the violin and 243 in an average Steinway. As with other pieces of this period, such as Several Concertos, a 15-minute chamber piece for flute, cello and piano, or “King Harald’s Saga”, a ‘grand opera in three acts’ lasting 10 minutes and scored for a solo soprano singing eight roles, a large part of the point seems to be the oblique manner in which the piece fulfils the expectations aroused by the title. In its attitude to material this is a modernism of sorts, but its chief aim is to delight; meanwhile, the abstraction of a title like Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta situates Weir in a line from Bartók, for all that her actual musical language tends to be more redolent of Janáček or Sibelius.

Today, Weir is more likely to call a chamber work ‘Piano Quartet’, or ‘Piano Trio Two’, although she continues to produce attractive miniatures which often share with the larger, multi-movement works an interest in working with material derived from folk music. The second of the Piano Quartet’s two movements spins ghostly variations on a Louisiana ballad, ‘Blanche comme la neige’, making Martin Butler’s American Rounds, another highly successful Schubert Ensemble commission, a logical companion piece. And there were American folk melodies again in On such a night as this is!, written last year for the Ensemble by another regular collaborator David Knotts, whose rapt second movement showed off to best effect the Ensemble’s lyrical playing and engaging, dance-like finale.

If Butler’s idiom sometimes evokes Copland, the modal plaintiveness of Weir’s brief Arise! arise! you slumbering sleepers – played here as a brief prelude to her quartet – brings it close to the voice of Vaughan Williams before its songful flow is cut off with characteristic abruptness. And yet this language seems not so much a backward look as a glimpse of a different, parallel line of evolution for contemporary music. I wouldn’t want to be without Carter or Xenakis (Gubaidulina? Well, maybe, but that’s a different issue!), but I’m not so sure I’d want to be without Weir or Butler either, especially in a time when the reproduction of recorded music makes it theoretically – and, for a sad number of listeners, actually – possible to listen to no music newer than the real Copland and Vaughan Williams.

Meanwhile, another glimpse of Weir’s wit came in her gruffly whimsical duo for two double basses, What sound will chase elephants away?, in which Peter Buckoke was joined by his wife and fellow bassist Judith Kleinman. Last time I heard this piece, at its premiere in the Purcell Room in 2006, it chased away two sharply-suited Japanese businessmen, who left the hall abruptly, evidently having experienced enough corporate hospitality for one evening.

But Weir is not the type to empty concert halls. Just how well her music can connect with audiences and amateur performers was communicated vividly in the South Bank Show feature on “We Are Shadows” (2000) – shown in Cinema 2 in the Barbican complex at 5 p.m. – following the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, its then conductor Simon Rattle and a choir of local children as they prepared for the premiere of the piece Weir had written as Composer-in-Association. The film contained interesting inside views of Weir’s working process, and reflections from her on the piece, including a perceptive comment on “We Are Shadows” as a latter-day Bach cantata. What was most remarkable, however, was the footage of Rattle rehearsing, first with the children and other chorus members, and then with the whole orchestra. Fired with unflagging enthusiasm and an unerring ability to illustrate every request with a memorable image or comic vignette, he left me wishing I’d been involved in the performance myself!

The highlight of the entire weekend was the concert performance of Weir’s second – and only unrecorded – opera, “The Vanishing Bridegroom”. (Will NMC or some other enterprising company now issue the recording the BBC took?) Composed in 1990 to a commission from Scottish Opera, and featuring a chorus (here the BBC Singers) from whose ranks stepped forward a trio of secondary characters for each of the work’s three parallel stories, the work retains Weir’s accustomed clarity of utterance while adding to it an almost Verdian richness of incident and emotion.

Each of the stories concerns a missing bridegroom or husband, and each affords Weir the opportunity to indulge some favourite narrative devices, such as the story-within-a-story of the first tale, ‘The Inheritance’, in which the three sons of a newly-deceased father fight over his legacy and consult his friend the Doctor, whose story of a woman torn between two men and rejected by both finally provokes an unexpected revelation concerning one of the sons.

The numerical symbolism of the pervasive ‘threes’ and, in particular, the tendency to present characters who are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rather than developing morally in the course of the narrative are also familiar Weir ploys, and set her work apart from, say, the nineteenth-century operatic tradition. Ivan Hewett in his programme notes for the Weekend suggested that Weir’s operas are about fate; but I don’t think this is quite true, either. Weir borrows characters and situations from folk-tales not in order to suggest that our world too is peopled by characters without choice or free will, but in order to delineate dramatic situations in which one character may be seen to act unexpectedly. True, the three brothers in ‘The Inheritance’ are depicted without psychological complexity; but the final confession of one of them is something to which we can all relate. Similarly, when the young woman in the third tale decides not to marry the rich stranger who is wooing her, this is – within Weir’s characteristic narrative world – the very image of free will. Within this world of stock character types are some surprisingly determined protagonists.

The work was done justice magnificently by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins, with Ailish Tynan outstanding in all three tales and the other soloists, too, uniformly excellent, including Jonathan Lemalu as a slatheringly seductive devil-in-disguise and Andrew Tortise as a silver-toned friend, lover and priest.

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