Rough Voices [BBC commission: world premiere]
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Appalachian Spring – Suite
Natalya Romaniw (soprano)
Members of BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 8 September, 2020
Venue: Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
With this live no-audience Prom Ryan Bancroft opened his account as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, swinging into action with Bohuslav Martinů’s Jazz Suite (1928), music by a Czech in Paris – neoclassical, edgy, turning on a sixpence stylistically, owing to Milhaud and Stravinsky, and including a lounge-lizard of a second movement and a Finale (fourth) that needs rhythmic precision in spades and a sense of the deadpan: received.
John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992) – Schoenberg meets cartoon soundtrack – also requires virtuosity and togetherness: BBCNOW’s fifteen members suggested a bright future for Bancroft and however the Orchestra is utilised during Covid times and (hopefully) beyond it. Chamber Symphony is a clever and diverting score, at its best in the droll/bluesy second movement (‘Aria with Walking Bass’) even if it goes on a bit, whereas the ‘Roadrunner’ conclusion is short and snappy, hectic and speed-scenic, with a violin cadenza, played brilliantly by Lesley Hatfield.
Gavin Higgins’s Rough Voices opens with a dissonant summons that alternates with ethereal reflections, music that grows in aggression and intensity before retreating to something otherworldly – quite engaging if over-repetitive: not the “amazing” that the Radio 3 announcer shared with us (unwisely) before the performance.
No rough voices in Samuel Barber’s Knoxville (1947), not with Natalya Romaniw in town to enunciate James Agee’s prose of balmy summer-evening nostalgia, her sensitivity matched by the players, especially (and invidious to single out) the oboist.
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944) – heard here in Suite form if in its original theatre scoring for thirteen musicians (the fourth of four versions of this ballet score) – is also nostalgia-centric if not without a pioneering spirit and a square-dance. This performance didn’t quite hit the spot: just a little too lingering (if understandable given the music’s nature) and lacking impetus in faster passages. As committedly played as it was, one hiatus aside, this music (normally, for me, desert-island material) failed to move and exhilarate – partly due to Copland’s full-orchestra fashioning being infinitely more revealing of such rich potential