Saturday, 29 July 2017

Ability to surprise: premiere of Julian Anderson's piano concerto at the BBC Proms

Steven Osborne (Photo by Eric Richmond)
Steven Osborne
(Photo by Eric Richmond)
Julian Anderson The Imaginary Museum; Steven Osborne, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Jill Barlow on Jul 26 2017
Star rating: 4.0

One cannot but admire the ingenuity of this strikingly innovative composer as well as his impressive sonorities and masterly contrasts and pure ability to surprise

‘I don’t always know how a new piece is going to end’, proclaimed composer Julian Anderson when discussing how he approached composing his new piano concerto with BBC presenter Kate Molleson on the occasion of the world premiere of The Imaginary Museum his innovative concerto for piano and orchestra. The concerto was premiered by pianist Steven Osborne with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ilan Volkov at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on 26 July 2017.

Indeed right from start to finish it was full of ‘non-sequiturs’ so much so that after experiencing it first live at its Proms premiere I was glad to be able to ‘Listen again’(twice in fact) on BBC’s handy ‘Listen Live ‘catchup ‘to try to sort out what was going on and even then mystery lurked, which was no doubt the composer’s intention all along.

Ilan Volkov, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Photo John Wood/BBC)
Ilan Volkov, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
(Photo John Wood/BBC)
Anderson describes how he had decided to take the piano on an ‘imaginary journey’ to various virtual locations commencing with ‘The World is a Window ’which opens with the pianist tentatively ‘testing the acoustics of the Hall’, striking gently a few single notes on the keyboard at random just for starters, gradually developing momentum, with fragments on the piano echoed deftly by plaintive woodwind from the orchestra, with use of syncopated rhythms to shimmering effect.

In ‘Janacek’s Wells’, the pianist ‘throws musical phrases into the virtual wells imagined by the orchestra bubbling and echoing the pianist,(so)the final phrase lands not in the well but takes us straight onto—the next movement’- ‘Sea’ but not before a succession of jerky chords, glissandi, and percussive pianistic flurries, have issued forth from many a virtual episode. Novelty was added by battery operated ‘milk frothers’ attached to the harps of the orchestra as well as use of electric pianos tuned a quarter tone flat to innovative effect.

In ‘Forest Murmurs’ things hot up again with much intensity, loud sounds, frantic syncopated beat, accompanied by more glissandi , leading on to deep onerous sonorities on the piano, with almost shades of the steady thud of the ‘Rite of Spring’ at times? But maybe not-depending on the reaction of each individual listener. By contrast the delicate ‘Song before Dawn’ depicts an imaginary bird singing in the Australian Desert to greet the emergent sunrise which bursts upon the scene to make for a serene conclusion.

The last movement, ’Mountains’ sees the acoustic and physical grandeur of the mountain from an unusual perspective, from the viewpoint of those ascending as opposed to those descending the mountain-something I never would have thought of –so Anderson certainly achieved his tendency for ‘surprise at the end’ –as well as much of the way through I may say.

One cannot but admire the ingenuity of this strikingly innovative composer as well as his impressive sonorities and masterly contrasts and pure ability to surprise.
Reviewed by guest reviewer Jill Barlow

BBC Prom 16, 26 July 2017 at the Royal Albert Hall
Liszt - Hamlet (First performance at the proms)
Liszt - From the cradle to the grave (First performance at the proms)
Julian Anderson - The imaginary museum (First performance)
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel - Pictures at an Exhibition
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor). Elsewhere on this blog:

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