BBC Concert Orchestra and Anna-Maria Helsing with James McVinnie, in music by Einojuhani Rautavaara, Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Samy Moussa

Cantus Arcticus, Op.61 – Concerto for Birds and Orchestra

Judith Weir
Still, Glowing

Philip Glass
Mad Rush

Arvo Pärt
Festina lente

Jóhann Jóhannsson
Good Night Day

Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité – V: Dieu est immense

Jóhann Jóhannsson
A Sparrow Alighted on Our Shoulder

Missy Mazzoli
Holy Roller

Samy Moussa
A Globe Itself Infolding [U.K. premiere]

James McVinnie (Royal Albert Hall organ)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Anna-Maria Helsing

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 6 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Royal Albert Hall was sparsely occupied for this sequence of ambient, minimalist and meditative music from the BBC Concert Orchestra with its Principal Guest Conductor Anna-Maria Helsing and organist James McVinnie, both making Proms debuts. This 90-minute, no-interval, concert presented nine works, eight of them first performances, the longest (by Rautavaara) about 20 minutes. All the works had mystical, cryptic or visionary titles, and some of it was strongly visual, some of it was or sounded like film scores, all of it geared to feeling more than thinking. All the music was comfortingly diatonic, with melody and momentum threaded with repetition. It was serious easy-listening, music that aims at big reactions, with awesome but simple harmonies and litany-like suspension of time. For the musicians, much of the music didn’t seem that difficult, with the result that the listener’s perception of music being produced by human facility and physical boundaries is eroded. Half of the works were written four to five decades ago, half within the past decade. The music also raised thoughts about style and its close relative gesture, along with doubts – and I suppose this is a very ‘Western’ response – about the passivity of zoning-out to art.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus (1972) used a lot of Sibelius’s style of quietness, and the tapes of various Nordic birds along with its visionary breadth made it strongly cinematic. Judith Weir’s 2008 Still, Glowing is an exercise in ambient music and was short and unmemorable – music “that can colour a space without needing to be listened to”, according to the programme note. The organist James McVinnie played (from memory) Philip Glass’s Mad Rush (1979), a classic piece of shock-and-awe minimalism that could pragmatically expand to fit-in with the Dalai Lama’s wayward progress in a visit to New York City. McVinnie gave us a 12-minute version, long enough for Glass’s minatory minor-third motif to register, ditto a roaring, full-organ section that sounded like the Widor Toccata stuck.

Arvo Pärt’s 1986 Festina lente (‘Make haste slowly’) for strings engaged us with abstract compositional process and sonority, and was lovely. Two pieces, Good Night, Day, and A Sparrow Alighted Upon Our Shoulder, from his 2016 album Orphée – written only two years before his death aged 49 – by Jóhann Jóhannsson gave a brief idea of this remarkable Icelandic composer’s imaginative range, to which his score for the sci-fi film Arrival and his work on the Icelandic television series Trapped bear witness. In between these two came one of Messiaen’s Meditations on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, with the title ‘Dieu est immense’ for solo organ. McVinnie played it with great conviction, but with big pedal themes, stark dynamic contrasts and brilliant chord clusters this is the Catholic mystic at his most schematic and instantly lampoonable. Having been a Messiaen fan, I now sometimes wonder if his music is worth persevering with, and then he does something so spontaneous as to be completely disarming – here the quiet, closing fade-out.

Missy Mazzoli, who studied with Louis Andriessen, is the white-hot hope of American contemporary music. With full brass, extra percussion, and a pianist, her Holly Roller (2012) was ambitious. Described by her as a monument to “a non-existent religion”, she filters and distorts fragments of Tallis’s music, with echoes of his brand of ecstasy, reminders of Tallis’s effect on Vaughan Williams, and a big role for cello solo. She has a voice and style, as does her almost-contemporary the Canada-born composer Samy Moussa, who now lives in Europe. His A Globe Itself Unfolding is a short piece with epic reach, for organ and orchestra. The title comes from William Blake. Orchestra and organ share leading and accompanying roles, much as in a concerto, with the two merging into each other, again as in a concerto. It has pace, shape and drama, along with a pervasive role for timpani, and the piece showed off the Royal Albert Hall organ’s splendour.

Anna-Maria Helsing was completely at home with directing this variety and number of new scores, as were the musicians of the BBC Concert Orchestra in a variety of styles.

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