Proms Chamber Music – 3 (NYO Sinfonietta)

Chain 1
After the Clock [BBC commission: world premiere]
Appalachian Spring – Suite [Original scoring]

National Youth Orchestra Sinfonietta
Paul Watkins

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 1 August, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

While not attracting a full house (although one that included the National Youth Orchestra’s new chairman and editor of “The Guardian”, Alan Rusbridger), the NYO Sinfonietta’s concert as part of “Proms Chamber Music” at Cadogan Hall was evidence that the new venue is paying real dividends. Quite simply the 19 players – principals of the National Youth Orchestra currently rehearsing before its summer tour ending at the Proms (Saturday 6 August) – and conductor Paul Watkins would not have been able to fit onto the stage of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Lecture Theatre.

The young musicians played Lutoslawski’s shifting aleatoric lines with remarkable aplomb, easily reading Paul Watkins’s “air traffic control signs”. The two percussionists brought the piece to a climax with tam tam and cymbals, from which the instrumental lines dissipated into thin air. Their ease in such repertoire has no doubt been helped by a new scheme that – since Easter – has seen sectional rehearsals taken with members of the London Sinfonietta.

John Woolrich’s After the Clock received its world première at this concert. While Watkins’s comments about the soundworld of Mahler were perfectly applicable to the opening chords and swooping answering string passages, Stephanie Hughes’s suggestion that it followed Woolrich’s interests in mechanisms was wide of the mark. Unfortunately we learnt nothing about the inspiration of the piece. The composer tells me that the title comes from a poem by the surrealist artist Hans Arp, and that the Goya influence (mentioned in the Proms prospectus) may have been a red herring although he admits the music inhabits the same world of Goya’s “Caprichos”: “dark, sometimes comic, grotesque, and sinister.”

I took it as a nocturnal urban scene – frantic at first with the bustle of nightlife, with a constant rhythm highlighted by tuned percussion. A high-wind screech suddenly cools the activity and stuttering flute, then brass, over swelling strings, offer a different atmosphere – perhaps a quieter park. Soon, however, we’re back to the insistent bustle, although following a second quiet section with wandering piano and the introduction of a muffled bass drum, it is the quiet music that begins to take over – the bustle when it returns being ever shorter. It is left to a mournful brass solo to bring the night’s escapades to an uneasy close. (John Woolrich’s new orchestral work, The Elephant from Celebes, is given its world première at the Aldeburgh Proms on 9 August. Back at Cadogan Hall on 22 October, David Temple conducts his Crouch End Festival Chorus in Woolrich’s “Far From Home”.)

The final piece on the published programme was the original 13-instrument version of Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring. The antithesis of Woolrich’s dark, urban landscape, this is perfect outdoor music: open-hearted and utterly benign. Again the musicians played with relish, with some fine wind-playing and ensemble rhythms.

As an encore, a septet of violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe and clarinet played Tommy Hewitt-Jones’s Fantasy, one of the pieces in the young composers’ competition, conducted by the composer.

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