Morgan Hayes Premiere

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [arr. Sachs]
Dérive 1
At First Light
Violin Concerto [BCMG Sound Investment commission: World premiere]

Keisuke Okasaki (violin)

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Franck Ollu

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 May, 2006
Venue: CBSO Centre, Birmingham

No season from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group goes by without its fair share of both new works and revivals commissioned under the organisation’s pioneering “Sound Investment” scheme, which here had made possible the first performance of the Violin Concerto by Morgan Hayes.

Such a title might seem unexpected in an age that prefers to cover its generic tracks, but Hayes is explicit in his description of the work as a dialogue with concerto form: one that is itself centred on the relationship between the one and the many, unfolded in a single movement that embodies a wide range of discourse over its 16-minute span. Aspects of the violin repertoire – at both a technical and expressive level – play a part in this diversity, though whether the (to quote the composer) “complex modality” that holds conflicting tonal elements in check is fully audible was unclear at a first hearing. Moreover, the degree of incident in even the more restrained passages meant the distinction between tension and relaxation was often at a premium – limiting the release effected by the cadenza towardsthe close, with the analogy of Lucky’s verbal meltdown in “Waiting for Godot” a tenuous one at best.

What did impress was the translucent scoring for a varied ensemble, and the skill with which Keisuke Okazaki – his deft and mellifluous tone a real asset in this music – dovetailed the solo line so that a concerto rhetoric emerged from the music rather than as an emotional adjunct. Franck Ollu secured committed playing from BCMG, giving the piece a formal coherence it might otherwise have lacked.

The first half of the concert consisted of three classics – albeit with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune heard in Benno Sachs’s 1921 transcription for the Society for Private Musical Performance in Vienna; one that preserves both the salient thematic details and a polyphonic depth such as speaksof lessons well learned from his teacher, Schoenberg. Qualities that find a distilled continuation several decades later in Pierre Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) – what now seems a pendant to the larger works before and after, with its arpeggiated textures a microcosm of activity inferred rather than stated.

The concert also provided a welcome outing for George Benjamin’s At First Light (1982), an evocation of a late Turner painting which – in its progress from a prelude of alive but amorphous detail, through an extended sequence of contrasting mood and motion, to a culmination in which the harmonic tensionis resourcefully yet powerfully resolved – now seems the highpoint of his precocious early maturity.

Whether Benedict Mason’s ! (1995) has the same durability is doubtful – yet this recklessly eventful fantasy on the idea of the ‘alveopalatal click’, replete with unlikely timbral combinations, unexpected harmonic tunings and textures that do not so much overlap as fall over each other, is a reminder of this singular composer’s quixotic yet meaningful thinking before it became overly ‘installationalised’. BCMG did it full justice – not least in the closing minutes when the musicians are all transformed into mobile percussionists, leaving the stage to a solitary heckelphonist in a touching gesture of closure.

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