Steve Martland MOT

Beat the Retreat
Mr Anderson’s Pavane

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Apollo Saxophone Quartet
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: John Fallas

Reviewed: 6 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

There can’t be many concert series, in London or anywhere else, to include portrait concerts for two composers as diverse as Hughes Dufourt and Steve Martland within a single season. But under Julian Anderson, nearing the end of his second season as Artistic Director, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s “Music of Today” series has just managed such a feat.

It is the distinguishing character of this series to combine the representative profile of contemporary music claimed by the series title with the personal selection of a single composer-programmer; and it has been the achievement of the current incumbent to present his early-evening audiences with a selection at once strikingly diverse and obviously sincere – there is no composer, one feels, who has been featured for reasons of less than genuine interest on Anderson’s part.

What could possibly unify a field so diverse as to encompass the two figures named, and more? To what extent are composers of today pursuing the same, or parallel, projects? One way of understanding all the composers who have been featured is to say that they have all had to address the problem of how to write music after serialism. Minimalism, spectralism, neo-romanticism, and any number of other movements in contemporary composition – as well as the very individual styles of, say, Goehr, Feldman, Ligeti and Nancarrow – can be seen as so many ways to fight free of that one imposing mid-century ‘ism’.

To some extent, and however strong one’s personal creative urges, one needs an alternative example in order to begin escaping such a heavy shadow. Anderson’s contribution to the newly-published “Cambridge Companion to Sibelius” traces the 1960s and 1970s resurgence of interest in the Finnish master and his subsequent role as an influence on many of the composers – including Dufourt, as witness his impressive orchestral piece Surgir – who needed badly to find their own way forward after what were perceived as the limiting dogmas of integral serialism. If we didn’t hear many traces of Sibelius tonight, it’s interesting to speculate on what sources might have helped Martland (born 1959) find his own, highly distinctive compositional voice.

Martland studied with the leading Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, with whom he shares both stylistic and cultural points of reference: a second- or third-generation minimalism owing much to the American pioneers Reich and Glass; a sense that none of this would have been possible without Stravinsky; but also a superficially very un-Stravinskian willingness to get his hands dirty with politics and social concerns.

As a young composer in the 1980s, and like Reich and Glass before him (but without the subsequent move into the opera house of Glass and Adams), Martland asserted his independence from new music’s institutionalised contexts through the founding of his own, rock-like band (with saxophones, brass, guitars, keyboard and percussion joined by a single violin, sole remnant of Haydn’s classical orchestra), for whose tours much of his ensemble music has been tailor-made and without whom it has been rarely performed, tonight being therefore a notable exception.

Martland reassured us it wouldn’t be too loud – the drum-kit had to be amplified, he explained, so it wouldn’t sound like a children’s toy, and the rest of the instruments simply needed to be balance. (In practice, the violin seemed severely under-amplified, though I’m told that elsewhere in the hall the problem was almost the opposite.)

Still, the noises that issued were a good deal louder than the Festival Hall audience is used to hearing, and a key concern for such a composer must be how to realise the intended visceral excitement of his style in and through time. Drawing on the sounds of rock music for raw subversive energy, how is one to find a structure which keeps up the interest – which does not offset the value of such (relatively simple) material with the impression of occasional note-spinning, of filling in musical space? All three pieces heard tonight drew on dance forms of the Baroque, another source of influence for Martland, for their formal techniques and procedures, and in the divisions-over-a-ground of Beat the Retreat (1995) one did indeed have the impression of an extended formal span not always able to build productively on the undeniable impact of the initial material.

It’s a weakness of structural thinking from which the other pieces on the programme were triumphantly free. A high trombone oration initiated the sequence of instrumental solos out of which was fashioned Mr Anderson’s Pavane (1994), a beautifully-heard, slow memorial to the film director Lindsay Anderson.

Remix (1986) – dubbed “hi-tech Baroque” by Martland’s teacher, a description not inappropriate to any of these pieces – somersaulted energetically over its final double bar-line to close this short concert on a high.

In performances filled with precision and energy, the Philharmonia’s players seemed equal to the challenge and the example of the Steve Martland Band, and Martyn Brabbins, in his last concert as series conductor, bade farewell in style.

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