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Certainly the BBCSO was in excellent form for what was a challenging contemporary programme, which began with an enthralling performance of Weir's Moon and Star, originally composed for the 1995 (Centenary) Proms. It is a choral orchestral work setting a poem by Emily Dickinson, in which the chorus mainly sings in block textures, sliding in triadic harmony around a modal type of angular melodic contour. Whilst the orchestra provides a more clustered atonality and chromaticism, there is a sense of finding tonal rest at the end, even though the final chords have a measure of elusive ambiguity. Above all, the vivid orchestration is beautifully shaded, especially the tingly percussion at the start and throughout, and the recurrent brass fanfare gestures. The ending, with its parallel chordal movement and spiky articulation, echoed Stravinsky, etching out the final verse, with its religious overtones, that rises to a climax. Despite the somewhat unambiguous clarity of texture, and lack of counterpoint, the overall effect was powerful and tinged with a modal exoticism that made up for some of the overconsonance.
By contrast, dissonance, atonality and microtonality were the main tonal resources of Red Earth (1987-8) by Michael Finnissy, a composer Weir herself referred to as 'the most important living British composer'. Sandwiched between the two Weir works, the utter contrast in musical language and aesthetics of these two composers was all the more highlighted, as also their shared love of an integration of traditional musics: in Finnissy's case, two didgeridoos and chamber orchestra.
Finnissy was inspired by 'flying over the Australian desert' and there was an undoubted bleakness and aridity to much in the first section, which however gave way to a sudden contrast, a rhythmically teasing, fierce drum beat for all six percussionists, loud -- cataclysmic, with hushed afterbeats leading to long lines of clusters high up. The gesture signals a solo viola to swoop and wail in quarter tones -- eloquently enacted by Norbert Blume -- engaging in an elemental dialogue with piccolo, while the two didgeridoos began their long awaited duet, staggering the breath and creating wave-like resonances with a slight buzzing tone, present continuously almost until the end of the piece, and dovetailed with strings. It was perhaps disappointing that rather than explore the range and potential of the didgeridoo, Finnissy mainly used their drone effects, a sustained tone lining the orchestral wallpaper rather than emerging to the foreground. The sustained woodwind lines appear again, but the drum beats come back at the end, and another brief viola cameo. Overall the piece, very much like Stockhausen's music, sweeps away conventional ways of hearing, abandons conventional gestures, inviting new ways of listening. Paradoxically rhythmic, with a sense of pulse though without any defined rhythmic activity, the main interest is the sound colour which then gives rise to the single dramatic gesture.
Copyright © 5 February 2008
Malcolm Miller, London UK