LSO & UBS Sound Adventures Workshop

The Moon, the moon!
Clear Night!

London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 8 June, 2007
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

LSO & UBS Sound Adventures is a commissioning project which has given 18 UK-based composers an opportunity to write for the LSO. Each piece is workshopped in an open rehearsal and then programmed in the LSO’s Barbican season without prior announcement. As David Alberman (leader of the orchestra’s second violins) said introducing the evening, this has lead to some interesting concerts where the new music has been sprung on an unsuspecting audience. It is also very frustrating for those of us who would be far more interested in the new music than in another performance of regular repertoire.

Each work was read, rehearsed and then given a final reading, with composer and orchestra encouraged to engage with each other over details of technique and notation, which interaction the LSO players took up enthusiastically.

Martin Suckling’s The Moon, the Moon! opened the workshop. In his programme notes Suckling said he wanted to write something that felt like an overture, full of fun, energy and excitement; as if to underline this he also quoted lines of Edward Lear. The music certainly fulfilled this brief, opening with a bright clear sound underpinned by rhythmic variety and supported by generous percussion. High string harmonics alternating with divisi cellos precede a sudden change of pace marked with energetic violin pizzicatos and the emergence of a sophisticated canon, instrumental voices chasing one another in an elaborate game. The final section is slow and quiet, beginning in the flutes and supported by a long viola solo lit with frequent grace notes; the piece ends in the stillness with which it began.

François-Xavier Roth directed with a clear beat and with scrupulous attention to balance, dynamics and texture – as he did throughout the concert.

Emily Hall’s Plinth was in marked contrast. Taking her cue from the fact that the work will open some unknown future concert, Hall imagined an unfilled plinth waiting to support some unidentified structure. The resulting work displays great rhythmic energy and drive, with few melodic lines, enhanced by vertical scoring. The soundworld is firmly underpinned by bass instruments, especially trombones and double basses, and maintains a single line with a clear trajectory that culminates in a single held low A for violins. The overall effect was monolithic, entirely appropriate for a plinth.

All three composers clearly benefited from the orchestra’s input. The musicians asked questions and raised concerns about notation, pointing out where an effect might be better shown on the page by not having divide lines on the same stave or by notating grace notes more effectively.

Christian Mason’s Clear Night! came across as the most experimental of the three works. It is complex in texture and technique, and is cast in a single span. It uses many unusual musical effects, including deliberately wide vibrato and slow glissandos from strings and woodwinds, as well as sudden accents cutting across the texture. Mason noted that he was trying to convey something of the exhilaration of the clear night sky, punctuated by points of light from bright stars. The dense textures made this perhaps the hardest work to grasp, but maybe also the one which would repay the most from additional hearings.

All three works are well worth further attention. Those who find the LSO website can apparently ask to receive a text message in advance of each work being programmed.

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