Lohengrin … Wild Card … Bruckner 7

Composer Portrait
Tansy Davies
Salt Box
Grindshow (electric)
Musicians from the Royal College of Music
Ben Gernon
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 72
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act III
Tansy Davies
Wild Card [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.7 in E [Edition used not specified]

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 8 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the First Night of the BBC Proms, 16 July 2010. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThe integration of popular and classical music is nothing new, especially if you include adaptations of folk-music, but Tansy Davies (born in Bristol in 1973) is one of the first composers to regularly incorporate stylistic features of the music she grew up with in the 1970s into what could broadly be termed as a ‘classical’ perspective. That is not necessarily a defining feature of her work, but it leaves a legacy best explored through her chamber music, as it was in the Composer Portrait preceding the main concert.

As an introduction to the premiere of Wild Card we were presented with three smaller-scale pieces, each rather similar in instrumentation but giving a valuable indication of Davies’s musical thinking. With each instrument amplified and competing with a sampler, balance could have been tricky but had clearly been well-established in rehearsal. The only fault of the programme was its juxtaposition of works incorporating similar soundworlds and techniques, but it did however succeed in conveying the composer’s rhythmic drive, brought brilliantly to life by students of the Royal College of Music.

In a rather haphazard introduction BBC Radio 3 presenter Tom Service gave four sound-bites to introduce Davies’s music: “energetic, funky, grimy and uplifting”. Davies also spoke candidly of each piece and its genesis, Neon being a musical interpretation of David Batchelor’s “Chromophobia” exhibition, and Salt Box referred to as a blend of Tom Waits and Tarkovsky. Recently revised to include electronics, Salt Box was not obviously uplifting in nature, and nor were its rhythms overtly funky, but it painted a vivid picture of the Kent salt marshes Davies had in mind when she wrote it. The addition of sampled sounds has lent the piece an extra sonic dimension, panning across the stereo picture before immersing the music in a thick cloud of atmospherics in a manner recalling the work of composers of ambient music such as Brian Eno. Its countenance is largely grey, but the figurations suggested the movement of winged creatures, the earthy sound of a low-register Hammond organ lending extra depth. Grind Show (electric) might have proved more effective in this context if its acoustic version had been presented, but was vividly played to portray the sounds of parties close by or across a landscape. Davies skilfully caught the ricochets of sound as if from other buildings and structures, introducing oblique riffs that threatened to dominate but which were quickly replaced. Neon, too, suggested a colourful tapestry, and proved the most immediately memorable of the three compositions. Cast in 7/4 throughout, and decisively conducted by Ben Gernon, its weird and wonderful sounds included the keyboard intonation used by Stevie Wonder to underpin “Superstition”, given rhythmic impetus in this performance by Hannah Gill and, across the stage, percussionist Callie Hough. Busy and kinetic, it suggested the movements if not the melodies of Stravinsky’s Septet, rhythmically charged but with its funky rhythms eluding capture thanks to that ‘missing’ beat in the bar. At the same time there were riffs and motifs to latch on to, with cello and bass in particular helping rhythmic momentum.

The 20-minute Wild Card also benefitted from Davies’s comments, the depiction of the “fool’s journey” laid out – the “fool” being one of the 22 Tarot cards of the Major Arcana. Davies also suggested characters to listen out for, though at times it was very hard to tell who was being portrayed, with several cards often turned over together. When ‘The Hanged Man and Death’ appeared the sonorities were especially striking, with pizzicato strings and timpani setting the eerie scene, while the lumbering dance of ‘The Devil’ that got the work underway tapped into the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s lower woodwind strength. Characteristically, Jiří Bělohlávek revealed the colorations of the score, while playing it relatively safe emotively. The careful shading and subtle pointing of Davies’s more playful riffs helped, with shards of melody and small groups of texture jostling for position as the cards shuffled. The percussion section was especially fine here, busy with a variety of clicks, thumps and whirrs. Perhaps inevitably the score and its concept brought to mind Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, though in its own clever twist the final card was snuffed out at the end as if in a passing apparition. Davies’s attention to detail and cross-genre fertilisation proved an intriguing listen, if not quite grabbing the audience, initially given the Prelude to Act Three of “Lohengrin”, a celebratory introduction but lacking heft.

In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony the brass-players assumed far greater importance, all eighteen of them (and therefore more than Bruckner scored for) seated across the top of the stage; their too-loud and edgy sound overly-dominated most of the climaxes, and to the detriment of the strings. There were however many fine things about Bělohlávek’s Bruckner, particularly once the Adagio had settled from a rushed start, opting to crown its C major peroration with the cymbal and triangle combination beloved of some – but not all – Bruckner specialists (but the edition being used was not clear-cut and was, very unhelpfully, not clarified in the programme). Rather than take each movement as a single phrase, Bělohlávek showed the ‘joins’ of Bruckner’s workings, with some pronounced adjustments of tempo in the finale until the unison passages and the first movement theme, powerfully wrought, won through.

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