Sometimes, rehearsals are even (or certainly seem, at the time, to be) more exciting than the actual subsequent concert: especially when they begin with a run-through of a new work you have become rather attached to – for its occasionally quirky, but heartfelt beauty; its extremely perceptive use of the chosen source material (and thus inspiration); and its composer’s utter belief in the almost supernatural talents of its commissioners – the transcendent Orchestra of the Swan – for whom no challenge seems insurmountable: no matter how complex it appears (at first, second, and third, glance) on paper. Not only do your not-quite-set ideas about the piece quickly gel; but unsuspected textures and emphases, themes and rhythmic conjunctions, emerge – especially with the insightful oversight of David Curtis: conjuring clarity and structure from what could easily be imagined as overwhelming and difficult. (You can hear all the extended time and major hard work he has spent in preparation emerging in the thoughtful instructions and discussions; can observe his willingness to listen and assimilate others’ needs and wants and ideas; you can almost grasp his ability to comfort and reassure.)
If there had been any disquiet or nerves beforehand, not only were they (almost) invisible, they must have soon evaporated, such was the apparent aplomb – and audible wonderment – building from the first bars, rapidly, into that trademark transparency and crispness (not to mention the resulting deeply-affecting emotions). As a result, queries were resolved in an instant; enthusiasm was piled upon contagious enthusiasm; balance was sought, and then quickly found; and (for lack of better words) the music caught fire!
And what music this was: Julian Philips’ stunning Ballades Concertantes – “‘creative transcriptions’ of four of the thirty-nine Ballades for voice of Guillaime de Machaut” – the final new work of this remarkable twenty-first season: which not only builds on what has gone before (almost certainly coincidentally), but pushes us (as well as the orchestra), stretches our understanding of music… without losing us, losing our confidence, losing our enthusiasm – in fact, in its lack of compromise (but magical, resultant allure), it forces us to listen with every ounce of concentration (as well as employing all that we have learned before), absorbs us in its language, lending us fluency, rendering our reception thrilling, thrilled, immersive, immersed, joyous… until we fly with it: all of our consciousness subsumed by its sensibilities – the sound filling our ears as love fills our hearts and minds. Now we are wrapped inside the music: its sense clear as polished crystal – as it has been from the start (especially if we had checked our expectations in with our coats).
If any consciousness remains at this point; leaks into this communal world of magical report – “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not…” – it is only to confirm that what we are experiencing is utterly, gobsmackingly, fantastic. New is good. Open your minds; and relish… revel in the sheer freshness – no matter if it brings smiles or tears, or both. (All emotions are valid: and surprise maybe the greatest of them all.) Goodness me! What it is to just close your eyes; and let this superb soundscape soak into every cell.
Then I open them; and find myself surrounded by so many others that I am literally shocked. There is applause – and a need, on my part, to explain how we reached this point.
With its opening roots firmly planted in the soil of English tradition – echoes of a contemporary Vaughan Williams bowed lark, perhaps; or Warlock’s curlewed cor anglais… – but its branches reaching, grasping its own clear sky… – this is a work to cherish, and dive headlong into (or climb its searching arms). The rain feeding it, weighing its leaves, may emanate from the fourteenth century and medieval French balladic tradition; but its growth is comprehensively contemporary and astonishingly riveting to see and hear.
Everyone will find their own interpretation: but – absorbed as I currently am in walking to meet the dawn – Dame, ne regardes pas instantly places me firmly in a South Warwickshire sunrise: a glowing red ball hovering above the Edge Hills; the day, as well as its creatures, emerging, quickening into the glories of photons that have never fallen before on skin and retina; fragments of ancient song teasing at our ears. Novel, stark beauty – for the senses ready to accept such… – gathering momentum and feeling; tugging at emotions we are not yet ready to name.
The confident, conversational viola (Virginia Slater) and double-bass (Stacey Watton) pull us deep into light and long shadow; the orchestral involvement (much, much more than accompaniment or support) expanding, challenging them to rise – and so they do: passion foremost; not anger, as such, more a prevailing, consuming regret that this break of day can never be re-seen. (Sadness gnaws at my heart; and yet I am strikingly ecstatic.) Oh! If only all days began with this much glory and capacity for grandness. Not even gravity can hold us back; the music’s embrace lifting us beyond any powers but its own. The sky we see is limpid and cerulean as my tears.
Sanz cuer m’en vois has a liveliness – almost a cheekiness – all its own (although, in the stunning, contrapuntal string writing, I feel that it might have taken off where Tippett once landed…). The world is now awake; and Stacey is scurrying skilfully through it, propelled by insistent rhythmic strings – dashing through copse and field, leaping walls and hedgerows – using all his senses to savour the cool morning freshness before it may dissipate. Horn calls and full orchestral might summon Virginia: winging her way, with Stacey’s support, above the chase… la chasse. There is so much energy being loosed; and yet both soloists serenade us through it – Machaut‘s song heard and not heard: as it is passed from voice to voice. (Time to catch your breath… – but only just!) Elation grows and grows in hand with exultance – every single instrument pulsing with vitality – and finishing with the most rapturous of exclamations! [That this is music which so suits OOTS is a credit to Julian. That they have grasped its shape, size, structure – and emotive meaning – in so little time, is not just a credit to them… it is astonishing. This could (almost) be a regular repertoire piece – oh, that it were so! – such is their concentrated capability. (It bears repeating, too – as more than one audience member remarked – as each hearing, each reading of the score – for me – has opened new doors; widened perspectives; spotlit structure; cleared paths; brought cohesion and an overarching discernment, an understanding….)]
The opening low strings of Je ne cuit pas qu’onques à creature signal the lamentation, the sighs, the sadness which so dominates this absolutely ravishing movement. Arpeggiated cries and harmonics wail as we weep with the music’s transcendent, plangent, insistent deep hurt. (Has the pain of love ever been captured with such awesome accuracy? Has it ever been so keenly communicated that our hearts break not only with Virginia’s high, held notes; but Stacey’s gorgeous groans and yearning sighs of anguish…?) The climax ripped what was left of my soul to shreds; the following fanfarades, mixed with the soloists’ gentle inquisitions, just enough, though, of the balm I needed. The hush that followed was quite astounding. [But, oh, too, too short. (I do understand why, though!)]
Dame, se vous m’estes lonteinne rouses our spirits instantly – even with its menacing undercurrents. This is music that asks a great deal of its players… – but their answers are always perfection. It also feels as if it is always building – even when it pauses for breath. Impetus is never lost; but neither is clarity – even though Dittersdorf (see below) would have been astonished at the marvellous sounds that could be created with the forces he had once used! The horns’ constant voicing of Machaut’s Ballade provides not only a stable core to the increasing complexity and volume; but a large heart beating with untrammelled joy… – for music that then finishes all too quickly!
Of all the four magnificent – and completely different – concertante pieces that this season has furnished us with (aren’t we so amazingly fortunate?!), I have to say that this is the one that gobsmacked me most. (And that is saying a humungous, elephant-sized lot.) Its range; its use of a small number of instruments to create an infinite variety of wonderful sounds of all sizes; its expert (and highly demanding) treatment of unusual soloists (leaving me wondering why other composers have been so deaf to this magical combination of voices); its sheer drive and verve… but, mostly, the way it mammocked my heart, mind and soul into the teensiest of pieces… leaving me in eternal awe. [David said to me that “It is bloody difficult!” But, only in so stretching every single member of OOTS – especially David, Virginia, and Stacey – comes the proportional reward, the pay-off. Julian – the hero behind all this, of course – would not have written such a challenging piece had he not thought them capable of meeting it head-on. And how! (I shall be grinning – with tear-stained cheeks – for weeks.)]
To anyone who believes classical music is dead; anyone who thinks new music is unlistenable to; anyone who doubts that such can engage (and thrill); well, this – and the three other commissions – are the answer! All we need, now, is for OOTS to record them all (and, yes, David, I know how difficult and expensive this is…) – so that we can hand them out as proof!
[As a postlude to this: chatting to John Liggins, the orchestra’s estimable chairman, during the interval, he suggested – rather sagely, I have to say… – recording Ballades Concertantes with the original Machaut Ballade sung as a preface to each movement. I rather like this idea, I have to say…! (Julian…?!?)]
Of course, the wonderfully-named Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf is really to blame: as it was his Sinfonia Concertante for Double-Bass and Viola that Julian was composing a “companion piece” to. Going back to the rehearsal, he would have been extremely proud to hear his creation played with such confidence and verve. It thus required very little finessing. In concert – after a much-needed interval (for all concerned) – this was delivered with such love – and why on earth not!? – it is remarkable in its vision and individuality… – that vivid smiles were visible all round!
It would be easy to underestimate the creativity of this piece. Admittedly, there are echoes of more famous contemporaries… – but Dittersdorf’s understanding of the unusual combination of his two soloists raises it several levels above what I think most people would expect. The cadenza is perhaps the highlight of the first movement. But a great deal of matchless sparkling magic is delivered by both the unaccompanied Andantino (although I would have liked to have heard the orchestral violins forming an ethereal threesome with Virginia and Stacey) – and the Trio of the Menuetto, where the two of them also play alla cappella – revealing just what a wonderful partnership this is (of musicians of unbeatable high calibre and deep joy).
The last movement was simply jubilation unconfined! Dittersdorf’s repeated three-chord orchestral motif could have become tedious – but never so with OOTS! [It was a shame that Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K136, had been removed from the programme – because of the length and ‘challengingness’ of Ballades Concertantes… – as it shares quite a few similarities with this Sinfonia Concertante, including such a motif in its finale; and it would have held a sparkling (and highly enjoyable) mirror up to its contemporary.] Admittedly, the orchestra could probably play this in their sleep; but, in relishing the new sounds that were being produced, they made it extremely exciting; and as thrilling, in its own way, as Julian’s new piece.
If the Dittersdorf echoed the more rhythmic and ‘happy’ parts of the later Ballades Concertantes, then Haydn’s stupendous 49th Symphony reminded us of Julian’s ability to tug at (and break) our heartstrings. Nicknamed La Passione, it is almost unremittingly, Sturm un Drang-ingly dark (apart from the “sparkling high horns” illuminating the third movement’s Trio) – the second movement Allegro di molto and Presto finale being (especially as played here) particularly, delightfully (and sharply) vicious – David’s conducting delivered with increased relish and incisiveness.
A programme that may therefore have appeared a tad ‘disconnected’ on paper, thus became incredibly canny in performance – …although I, personally, would have performed it in reverse (an incredibly risky move, I accept) with the new work last: letting the ‘classical’ works act as a prism, a gateway, into Julian’s undoubted masterpiece (although Julian and David’s illustrated ‘masterclass’ was more than illuminating). Three utterly unique works; all different; all thoroughly given the OOTS treatment – creativity and emotion, technique and effort, love and energy, all always at the fore… – every note played with as much belief as every other one; and all three combining to produce something quite miraculous. As I wrote earlier: aren’t we so amazingly fortunate?! (Just a shame there were so few of us.)