Red, White and Blue

Crossing the Border
Popcorn Superhet Receiver
Northern Lights

Thomas Carroll (cello)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Robert Ziegler

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 November, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This programme by the BBC Concert Orchestra neatly gathered together four works that were either premiered by this enterprising outfit or which typify its approach to performing today’s music.

Interesting to think that when Crossing the Border first appeared in 1991, Steve Martland was still reckoned likely to make a significant contribution to contemporary orchestral music. That he chose not to do so is regrettable not least on the basis of this work, which takes its place – by no means apologetically – in the line of British string-orchestra works going back at least to Elgar. Although written with amateur performers in mind, the piece makes few concessions in the opening-out – first contrapuntally, then harmonically – of its initial canonic entries over a consistent but (at least in this account) never inflexible pulse. With its evocative antiphonal exchanges (heard to far better effect when the piece is played, as here, by a full string body) Crossing the Border is typical Martland in its rhythmic drive and expressive toughness, with a resourcefulness in terms of texture and sonority (developed in the later string quartet, Patrol) that were amply brought in this incisive performance.

A one-time pupil of Martland, Joe Duddell can seem reserved in comparison – yet, as is borne out by his fine percussion concerto, Ruby, his is a take on post-minimalist traits both personal and appealing. Not a concerto as such, Shadowplay (2002) pursues a thoughtful and engaging dialogue between cello and an orchestra rich in lower sonorities that ‘ghost’ the soloist in constantly-changing ways. Nominally slower and faster, its two movements form an integrated whole that itself seems increasingly to reflect on ideas already encountered; something that this committed reading by Thomas Carroll (who premiered the work with Sinfonia Viva) brought out; his advocacy suggested that here is a worthwhile addition to the repertoire – drawing the listener in through its sheer understatement.

Jonny Greenwood’s tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra got off to a diverting start last year with his catchy-titled Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which has just gained the BBC Radio 3 Listeners Award in the 2006 British Composer Awards. Inspired by his memories of childhood car journeys, with the imagined sound of a limited selection of cassettes merging from the noise of the engine so that the two became as one in the mind’s ear, this is a substantial piece in three main sections. Building through a juxtaposition of ‘white noise’ and chorale-like harmony, the first is a reminder of Greenwood’s liking for the texture-music of early Penderecki, with the central episode employing pizzicato and col legno techniques in a menacing atmosphere. The final section thensuggests Xenakis in its volatile dynamics and ‘wide angle’ glissandos, leading to a close on a powerful emotional apex. A well-deserved revival that augurs well for Greenwood’s next BBCCO commission.

The concert ended with another revival – Northern Lights (2004) by Anne Dudley, former Composer-in-Association with this orchestra. Inspired by a sighting of the Aurora Borealis from a frozen lake in the far north of Norway, this is a varied rhapsody with distinctly Nordic tone-colouring and a direct progression towards livelier, dance-like music – before the transformed reprise of its initial rapt mood. Whether a more concrete programme runs through this piece is left for the listener to decide, but with the BBCCO responsive to the assured direction (as throughout the evening) of Robert Ziegler, it proved enjoyable on its own terms.

Good that the orchestra has the opportunity to revive its commissions, especially when placed in so effective a context as this concert.

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