Monday 6 October 2014

A new collaboration: B Tommy Andersson and BBCNOW

Bosch - Garden of Earthly Delight
Bosch - Garden of Earthly Delight
Strauss, Andersson, Sibelius; Ann Petersen, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård; St David's Hall, Cardiff
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 3 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Large scale work from B Tommy Andersson heralds his appointment as Composer-in-Association with BBC NOW

Tonight's concert (Friday 3rd October) was the first in a new series of collaborations between composer B Tommy Andersson and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, at the St David's Hall in Cardiff. Andersson follows in the footsteps of notable BBCNOW Composers in Association, including Simon Holt and Michael Berkeley, working with the orchestra in their new music and outreach programme. The concert also included 'Four last songs' by Richard Strauss (sung by soprano Ann Petersen) and Sibelius' 'Second symphony'.

Because this concert was being record and transmitted live by BBC Radio 3 there were some pre-performance explanations of the music by Nicola Heywood Thomas and Søndergård, plus a post concert Q and A session with conductor and composer where they talked about their collaboration.

B Tommy Andersson. Picture credit: Peter Knutson
B Tommy Andersson.
Picture credit: Peter Knutson
Swedish composer B Tommy Andersson (1964-) started to compose music in his early teens and started to learn orchestration counterpoint and harmony at 14. His studies continued in Gothenburg and then at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with Hans Eklund and Sven-David Sandström. He still lives in Stockholm where he conducts as well as composes. He has written for virtually all possible genres including opera and ballet as well as choral and orchestral and solo works.

'The garden of delights' is five years old now and is the work of a composer comfortable with his craft. There was no gentle leading in, no preparing the audience... 'The garden of delights' exploded into the auditorium with crashes from the percussion and brass interspersed with frenzied strings, woodwind, horns and woodblocks. The first section brought together lots of different characters, each delightfully individual - squelching brass, insistent woodblocks, in blocks of sound gradually overlapping into a multi-faceted dance macabre.

Based on a 15th C painting by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) this composition is a tryptich of sorts. The original depicts (on the left) the garden of Eden, in the central section is humanity with all its failings, surrounded by fruit, birds and other animals, and finally on the right is hell with lots of musical instruments - perhaps Bosch hated music! When Andersson first saw this painting he was deeply moved by it - so much so that he was inspired to write a piece of music. It took a further seven years before Andersson started on 'The garden...' With a commission from The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Andersson finally was able to begin.

The next section was much calmer. Quiet legato brass were followed by airy held chords from the strings. More colours were added, trumpets and clarinets only to be interrupted by flute birds, woodblock woodpeckers, and other percussion animals. The legato sections expanded into close, bright, disharmony and a return to earlier ideas. A brief pause preceded a rising line from cello and tubular bells which after some development gave way to a sinuous oboe solo and more birds and led in turn to a general falling of the material. If the earlier rising section was dawn rising, this was the sun setting and the world going to sleep.

The final section was heralded by drums into a maelstrom of rolling thunder. Finishing much sooner than I expected, this was more like an extended coda than the third side of a tryptich. But then Anderssson was at pains to insist that the work was not a realisation of the painting - rather an interpretation of it, or of the feelings it produced in him.

Ann Petersen
Ann Petersen
The 'Four last songs' by Richard Strauss (1864- 1949) is the declared favourite piece of music of Søndergård. Strauss wrote more than 300 songs during his life over half of which were for his wife Pauline de Ahna. After the Second World War the couple moved to Switzerland and in 1948 Strauss wrote 'Four last songs' which he dedicated to his friends but clearly references his acceptance of old age and of passing from a life well loved. His death in 1948 was followed a few months later by Pauline.

Søndergård first heard the Danish soprano Ann Petersen in Copenhagen during a performance of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (also by Strauss) and decided there and then that he had to work with her. It took a lot of organising and juggling of tight schedules but he was very pleased to have her sing these songs tonight.

At once you can hear the links to 'The Garden...' with the bird song in 'Frühling' and 'Im Abendrot' and the rising strings of 'Beim Schlafengehen'. Petersen was the perfect choice for these songs. She had lovely vocal poise keeping each of the tone poems controlled and tender, spinning gently on high quiet entries and moving seamlessly to the passages which were low in her voice. The orchestra in turn provided a cushion of movement to her stillness without overpowering, yet swelling when she was silent. Additionally there was a delightful violin solo by principal violinist Lesley Hatfield.

The second half of the concert was given over to Jean Sibelius's (1865- 1957) 'Second Symphony'. Written in 1901-2 this too is somewhat allegorical being written after a trip to Italy and contains remnants of ideas for 'Don Giovanni'. It has also been suggested that the slow movement was written in memory of his sister in law who died in 1901. Despite this it was adopted by the Finnish as an emblem of their struggle for independence from Russia.

Here it is the detailed and individual orchestration which links the Sibelius and Andersson. Søndergård's rapport with the orchestra was very clear. En masse any phrase which could be shaped rippled with feeling, while larger dynamic changes reached opposing extremes without being overt or crass. Little pauses were poignant and breathless and the changes in mood dramatic.

Thomas Søndergård
Thomas Søndergård
Thematic elements, for example the little bouncing three by three motif from the start in the strings that introduce and underscore cheerful folk tunes, were brought forward at every repetition. The joy of Sibelius is in the construction. Patterns develop into motifs, accompaniment expands into themes, and the orchestration brings new combinations leading to a personal sound that is neither Russian nor European.

I could not take my eyes off the double basses especially towards the end of the final movement. On their own, or bolstered by the tuba, the repeated two note phrase was emphasised in a way that I have never heard before.

Danish Søndergård kept a beady eye on the orchestra throughout. Every now and then he would laser in on one section or another, encouraging, and rewarding as it all came together. A very physical conductor, he was as interesting to watch as the rest of the performers.

For the rest of the week you can hear this concert on iPlayer with some extra interviews and songs. This series will continue with seven further works by Andersson - one of which will be a premiere.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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