Philharmonia Orchestra Music of Today – Anthony Gilbert (10 April)

Vasanta with Dancing
Rélexions, rose nord
Beastly Jingles

Marie Vassiliou (soprano)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 April, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This admirable series of early evening concerts affords an opportunity to sample the work of contemporary composers whose exposure is perhaps comparatively limited. Recently retired as Head of Composition and Contemporary Music at the Royal Northern College of Music, Anthony Gilbert (born 1934) has produced a wide-ranging, if not exactly prolific, output.

On the evidence of the pieces heard on this occasion, one can admire scrupulous craftsmanship, music carefully and tailor-made for specific instruments and an interest in Indian music. This latter was exemplified by the first work performed – Vasanta with Dancing, dating from 1980-81. An ensemble of six players – violin, viola, harp, flute, oboe and percussion – provided a colourful palette for the working out of a musical structure clearly modelled upon a traditional Indian one in which material is gradually introduced and becomes ever more elaborated and, in this case, frenzied and excited before being cut off.

The piece starts with some ruminating phrases from the alto flute, supported by sustained string chords and interrupted by interjections from harp and marimba. This flute music, initially meditative in character, is strongly reminiscent of Britten’s writing in his Church Parables where, indeed, a not dissimilar ensemble is used. The sense of austerity mixed with expression displayed a similar kinship to Britten in this instance, and Gilbert’s lyrical writing in particular was effective.

I felt that, in this performance at any rate, the piece took a while to ’get going’ and that the dance-like episodes needed more spring and vitality. The specified duration of 15 minutes was over 18 on this occasion and greater abandon and sense of forward momentum would, I think, have been to the benefit of the music.

Inspired by the great rose windows of Chartres Cathedral, Rélexions, rose nord (1991-96) for bass clarinet and vibraphone seemed to be much more successful. An intimate and meditative duet, in which ideas on both instruments intertwine and reflect one another, this is contemporary ’impressionist’ music of the highest order. Fairly gentle throughout, the interlocking of sonorities and ideas are quite captivating, and the odd moments where triadic harmony could be distinctly heard or outlined were very affecting. Mark Van de Wiel’s expressive bass clarinet was well matched by David Corkhill’s fluidity on the vibraphone. As far as I know this is a unique instrumental combination, and I would like to hear the piece again along with the others in Gilbert’s Chartres-inspired triptych for woodwind and percussion.

Written for Jane Manning, Beastly Jingles, from 1984, exploits the vocal range and performing dynamism of its dedicatee. As a musical response to an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia entry concerning the classification of animals, Gilbert selected four texts that are whimsical in character. A similarly constituted ensemble to that employed for Vasanta with Dancing, with the addition of double bass, guitar and mandolin, the instrumental writing provided interesting colour and timbre. The plucked sounds whichaccompanied the second song (“Those which are tame or domesticated”) and the lopsided waltz of the fourth (“Uncountable ones”) proved especially memorable.

Marie Vassiliou is clearly a committed performer but perhaps tried too hard and earnestly. Her words were not ideally clear and she would have been heard to better effect had she been placed at the front of the platform rather than from in amongst the ensemble. However, she relished the settings’ quasi-theatrical dimension with gesture, movement and a final flourish of tap dancing.

In the pre-performance talk with Julian Anderson, Anthony Gilbert confessed to not having a sense of humour. In Beastly Jingles he certainly demonstrates a sense of dry, laconic wit, but it was in Rélexions, rose nord that I felt his true spirit is to be found.

The next MOT is on 29 April at 6pm in the RFH and features Michael Jarrell – “no ticket required – just turn up!”

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