Sunday 19 May 2019

Three continents, three composers, one concerto - Dresden Music Festival debuts its 2019 commission

Jan Vogler, Cristian Macelaru, WDR Sinfonieorchester - Dresden Music Festival
Jan Vogler, Cristian Macelaru, WDR Sinfonieorchester - Dresden Music Festival
Gabriella Smith, Nico Muhly, Sven Helbig, Zhou Long, Beethoven; Jan Vogler, WDR Sinfonieorchester, Cristian Macelaru; Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new concerto spanning three composers and three continents formed the centrepiece of this imaginative programme

For its 2019 festival commission the Dresden Music Festival had the intriguing idea of commissioning a concerto from not one but three composers, spanning three different continents. Group works have featured in the classical music and the 20th century saw group pieces from Les Six for instance, and the Yellow River Concerto was a effort, but such things are not common.

The new cello concerto Three Continents by Nico Mulhy, Sven Helbig and Zhou Long formed the centrepiece of the concert given by Jan Vogler (cello), WDR Sinfonieorchester and Cristian Macelaru (conductor) at Saturday's (18 May 2019) Dresden Music Festival concert at the Kulturpalast, Dresden. The concert opened with the European premiere of Gabriella Smith's Field Guite and ended with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 'Eroica'.

Gabriella Smith (born 1991) is a young American composer who has been mentored by John Adams. Her Field Guide was commissioned by Cristian Macelaru who conducted the work's premiere in the USA. It takes the listener in an imaginary journey listening to a wide variety of insects from close to. The work started in striking fashion with unpitched rhythmic figures, catchy rhythms creating a striking sound world. Gradually Smith introduced pitched notes, but throughout the piece there was a fascinating mix of pitched and unpitched creating a series of atmospheric and descriptive textures. Yet overall the piece did not seem contrived, and Smith built it into a terrific climax.

The new cello concerto by Nico Muhly (born 1981), Sven Helbig (born 1968) and Zhou Long (born 1953) took no over arching theme, except perhaps to celebrate the sheer diversity of three composers from three different continents and almost three different generations. Each movement, Muhly's Cello Cycles, Helbig's Aria and Long's Tipsy Poet lasted around 10 minutes and the three formed a satisfyingly contrasting whole, fast, slow, fast.

Each composer seemed to take a slightly different view of the role of the soloist with Nico Muhly making Jan Vogler's cello first amongst equals in a rather Baroque way, Sven Helbig spotlit the singing qualities of the cello as soloist, and Zhou Long cast it as uncertain narrator in his story based on a well-known Chinese poem.

Muhly's Cello Cycles plunged straight in with the busy cello part over skittering chords in the orchestra. With few moments of pause, the movement was like a perpetuum mobile with Muhly using the large orchestra to striking effect to create a soundscape full of colour. Rather than spotlighting the soloist, he seemed to feature as part of the texture very much as in a Baroque concerto grosso.

By contrast Sven Helbig's Aria opened with a series of atmospheric chords cycling through the lower strings. Helbig seemed to developed the orchestra part from this, creating an harmonic backdrop for a beautifully singing line from Vogler's cello. As the movement developed the role of the soloist seemed threatened, but he singing line returned albeit with a more developed accompaniment ending with an intense cello solo threatened by huge orchestral chords.

Zhou Long's lively final movement, Tipsy Poet, had a more narrative structure though the programme book did not print the poem on which Long based the movement, which was a shame as you felt some details were missed in the listening. Zhou Long's orchestration featured evocations of Chinese instruments, in a colourful soundscape which had a striking and characterful role for the soloist, ending in brilliant noisy fashion.

Whether the work will succeed in having an independent life remains to be seen, particularly as it will need the issues of share rights and publishers to handled. And you wonder whether the individual composers will be tempted to re-cycle their individual movements in another form. But Jan Vogler made a terrific champion for the piece, acting as the focus for the entire work and you hope that he is able to perform it again.

After the interval the huge string section remained, giving rise to the same balance issues that had troubled me in the previous concert [see my review], and making me regret that large symphony orchestras no longer adopt the Mahlerian solution of doubling the woodwind in classical symphonies. That said, Cristian Macelaru's interpretation had much to commend it, especially with an orchestra so responsive to his urgent shaping of the music.

Macelaru's way with a phrase was always strongly shaped and the music in the first movement ebbed and flowed from high excitement to lightly transparent textures. But always the music flowed and Macelaru's shaping did not hold up the momentum so we were carried along. I loved the way moments in the development seemed to lightly dance. This was an interpretation which wore its seriousness lightly.

The second movement funeral march started quite tightly controlled, yet still strongly phrased with a high degree of excitement in the various episodes. The fugal section was highly articulated, giving a clear sense of the different lines. As the march returned towards the end, Macelaru and the orchestra mesmerised us.

The third movement started full of controlled excitement before vibrantly erupting, though this scherzo was never funny, always serious. The horn passage which is a big feature of the trio was wonderfully buoyant. There was real rhythmic bounce to the opening theme of the fourth movement, and real interest in the phrasing with a contrast between powerful textures, strong articulation and transparent moments and sometimes time seemed suspended.

This was very much a journey with an engaging narrator and whilst the WDR Sinfonieorchester may not be amongst the very greatest of orchestral instruments, its players responded well to Macelaru's direction giving us a wonderfully engaged performance.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Dresden Music Festival 2019
    • Three continents, three composers, one concerto - festival debuts its 2019 commission (★★★) - concert review
    • Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (★★★) - concert review
    • Visions of the original sound: colour, texture & timbre to the fore in the opening concert of the 2019 Dresden Music Festival (★★★) - concert review 
  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
  • An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars (★★★) - concert review 
  • Rough for Opera - Speak Red, A Father is Looking for his Daughter, Dreaming Clouds - opera review
  • A young man's passion: Julian Prégardien & Erik Le Sage in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (★★★★) - CD review
  • Far more than choral virtuosity: Handel's Israel in Egypt from the BBC Singers & Academy of Ancient Music (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • French inspiration, spectacular scenery & classical music: I chat to festival director Christoph Müller about this year's Gstaad Menuhin Festival  - interview
  • Brainwaves and modernism: the Ligeti Quartet explores consciousness at Kings Place (★★★) - concert review
  • Telemann from Toulouse: music for strings in stylish modern instrument performances (★★½) - CD review
  • A huge undertaking: Busoni's Piano Concerto recorded live in Boston - Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo - CD review
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  • The old ethos and a new professionalism: celebrating Garsington Opera at 30  - interview
  • Youthful Verdi revealed: a lithe and impulsive I Lombardi from Heidenheim (★★½)  - CD review
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