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Stephen Montague (born New York, 1943) is an American who came to Britain for a weekend, in 1974, and is still here nearly thirty years later, now a pillar of UK contemporary music life. His heroes remain American -- Cage, Cowell and Ives -- and his works are surprisingly varied. Disparate Dances (2002) for flute, harp and chamber orchestra is based on the folk traditions of three very different parts of the world, and it's one of those contagious pieces in which it's almost impossible to sit still.

John Metcalf (left) and Stephen Montague at the 2003 Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music. Photo: Keith Bramich
John Metcalf (left) and Stephen Montague at the 2003 Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music. Photo: Keith Bramich

Slick, dashing and excitingly fast, the first movement, Carpathia takes its inspiration from the dances of Eastern Europe -- maybe Bulgaria or Romania, and has a successfully folky feel, with the harp sometimes used as a wooden percussion instrument. The second movement, sparse, breathy, spacious and slow, eases itself in gently with bowed crotales and harp. With something of the style of a Japanese buyo dance, Philippa Davies bends the pitch of her alto flute to summon the sound of a shakuhachi and Catrin Finch plucks her harp strings near the soundboard, alluding to the sound of the koto. It's quite some time before the strings enter -- quiet, shimmering violins, and Montague gradually adds instruments, volume and energy, building to a sound like wailing banshees using string harmonic and piccolo effects. The music settles again to a flute/harp duet with percussion, but the composer has played a trick on our ears -- the orchestral flautist is playing from the back of the hall, and as the Irish/American third movement begins, we find Philippa Davies playing not flute but tin whistle. And it's fun and games from then on, as the orchestra takes up the tune (a real one, The Rights of Man, from eighteenth century Ireland), with humorous 'wrong note' interjections from the brass, clapping from wind and brass players and Catrin Finch playing the triangle.

Pierre-André Valade, Stephen Montague, Catrin Finch, Philippa Davies and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Photo: Keith Bramich
Pierre-André Valade, Stephen Montague, Catrin Finch, Philippa Davies and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Photo: Keith Bramich

 

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Copyright © 29 September 2003 Keith Bramich, London, UK

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