Philharmonia Orchestra Music of Today – Robin Holloway (9 October)

Showpiece (Concertino No.4), Op.53
Aria, Op.44

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Michael Allen

Reviewed: 9 October, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Charlotte Higgins questioned the validity of anniversaries in a Guardian article recently. She made the point that if the music wasn’t good enough to survive on its own, without the excuse of a centenary or useful round-number birthday, then perhaps we shouldn’t bother with it.

A somewhat extreme view maybe, although the lengths that some organisations go to in order to mark birthdays (or deathdays) does lend some sympathy to the argument. The present writer recently received some material from a publisher to mark the 15th anniversary of a composer’s death, and a major British orchestra marked the 55th birthday of another. What next?

This year, with the exception of wall-to-wall Berlioz and Prokofiev, few anniversaries seem to have taken effect amongst the general paucity of London concert programmes and its regular diet of Brahms and Beethoven cycles. It is surely a sign of the times that whilst it is deemed fitting to mark the centenary of that glitzy old Stalinist Khachaturian with a complete concert of his works, not one London orchestra, or for that matter the Proms, has celebrated the 60th birthday of a composer whose sometimes glorious and sometimes infuriating excesses make him onethe most significant and idiosyncratic composers of orchestral music of our time.

The BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Northern College of Music make amends in Manchester, but in London it has been left to the Nash Ensemble and the Philharmonia’s admirable Music of Today series to mark Robin Holloway’s birthday. This concert, the first of a new MOT season, included two works, with the now familiar pre-performance discussion between composer and MOT’s artistic director Julian Anderson. Unlike some composers who think that talking about their music is akin to hanging out their dirty washing in public, Robin Holloway needs little prompting. A single, seemingly straightforward question can result in a prolonged and ecstatic outburst sending the listener into all manner of uncharted territories – which, oddly enough, might be an apt description of his music too.

At least this would seem the case with Aria, a virtuoso piece, originally written for the London Sinfonietta. The main contrasts in the piece are between what the composer calls “lumbering mechanical ugliness and appassionato intensity” (that’s the aria bit!) – it is the characteristic strain between these two ideas, the vulgar and the sophisticated, that sweeps the piece along in a frenzy of activity. One could argue for ages about the lapses of taste – percussionist David Corkhill had a busy twenty minutes and I am not sure what the duck-call added to the proceedings! But with this sort of piece, players and conductor just hope to start and finish together and hang on for dear life. The final bars, as the music collapsed into a “communal cadenza” and finally into breathless whisperings, brought an almost audible sigh of relief – not least from the musicians, who under Martyn Brabbins’s direction, negotiated the considerable demands of the piece with aplomb.

Alongside these intense and serious works, Holloway has produced lighter pieces, including a series of concertinos and divertimentos for varying combinations of instruments. Concertino No.4, Showpiece, was written to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Society for the Promotion of New Music in 1983 and is in effect a rather dazzling, smaller and light-hearted relative of the big concertos for orchestra that Holloway has written throughout his career – which presently stands at three with another onthe way. The three linked sections fall conveniently into the fast-slow-fast pattern and each instrument has its own mini-cadenza, with the piano making up for waiting so long and indulging in a particularly fiery display (finely played by Shelagh Sutherland). As befits such a piece, wit and sheer compositional verve replace angst and tension. Textures are clear and, intentionally or not, all manner of twentieth-century composers take brief bows – Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bartók among them. Perhaps too Holloway’s teacher Alexander Goehr. Ultimately, there probably isn’t another British composer that would have the nerve to do something like this and bring it off with such panache. The quixotic final semiquaver chord of D major said it all really!

The concert ended with an unrehearsed and fittingly eccentric account of the necessary birthday tune!

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