Out of the Shadows

Monday, 3 June 2019

Music of Today: Philharmonia's 2018/19 Composers Academy

Composers' Academy, Chia-Ying Lin, Alex Woolf, Benjamin Ashby; Philharmonia Orchestra, Geoffrey Paterson; Royal Festival Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019
Three contrasting works for mixed octet from the current members of the Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy

The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2018/19 Music of Today concert series at the Royal Festival Hall ended on Sunday 2 June 2019 with works from the three composers who took part in the Philharmonia's Composers' Academy, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Society. Geoffrey Paterson conducted members of the Philharmonia Orchestra in Chia-Ying Lin's Intermezzo to the Minotaur, Alex Woolf's Octet and Benjamin Ashby's I've been planning for an Impromptu.

All three works were for mixed octet, each taking a slightly different line-up of instruments, and all three had been workshopped in February by Paterson and the musicians as part of the Composers' Academy, allowing the composers to experiment and develop the material in ways which might not always be possible with an official commission. What was fascinating was the three very different routes the young composers took for writing for eight instruments.
Chia-Ying Lin's Intermezzo to the Minotaur, for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano and percussion, was inspired by Picasso's 1928 Le Minotaure, particularly the collage techniques which Picasso used in the art-work. It started with a collage of fragments with quite a transparent sound-world despite the density of the writing, with instruments throwing motifs between each other. Chia-Ying Lin used lots of advanced techniques in all the instruments, perhaps too many for the coherence of the piece, and it was notable for the mosaic of colours and textures she created, alternating between delicate and violent. There were eerie moments, with a sense of violence suppressed, but then the piece slowly built into a seething mass, before sudden finish. There was something rather French about the mosaic textures and the instrumental writing.

Alex Woolf's Octet, for violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano, began with an urgent cello pulse. Over this there was a combination of instrumental flurres and long held notes, creating a tension between the fast and the slow, pulse and stasis. The writing, with its often spiky rhythms, rather reminded me of Stravinsky in neo-Classical mode. The rhythms were often quite catchy, and there was a sense of playful contrast in the writing. The texture thinned out at times, but the underlying sense of pulse rarely paused, though it was sometimes rather implicit, but gradually the pulse unwound into a long moment of stasis. Attempts to re-start the pulse ended in a final, dynamic gesture.

Benjamin Ashby's I've been planning for an Impromptu, for flute, violin, cello, double-bass, trumpet, saxophone, percussion and piano, was inspired by Ashby's love of free jazz. The work was based on an improvisation, but was fully notated. We started with spare gestures placed in space, with the gaps between as important as the motifs, both pitched and non-pitched, with a sense of building to something. Gestures got large, and longer, and interleaving flurries of notes built to a more continuous flow of material. Here it was very much texture, rather than harmony or pitch (I did wonder whether it needed such detailed notation in the writing and whether a degree of aleatoric freedom might have been possible), with the colouristic sense of the writing again giving a rather French feel to the piece. Excitement built and things got positively orgasmic. A series of moments of orgasmic chaos, each followed by quiet stasis, brought this intriguing piece to a close.

Philharmonia Orchestra: Fabrizio Falasca (violin), William Bender (viola), Alexander Rolton (cello), Christian Geldsetzer (double bass), Kristan Swain (flute), Mark van der Wiel (clarinet/bass clarinet), Simon Haram (alto saxophone), Luke Whitehead (bassoon), Carsten Williams (horn), William Morley (trumpet), Emmanuel Curt (percussion), Siwan Rhys (piano).

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