On Friday I attended this key, if eclectic concert in the BBC Proms festival. Key, as the Proms are celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 75 birthday year (1934 is a key date across the season) and are programming all the ballets of Igor Stravinsky; eclectic, as the Messiaen & Penderecki admiring rock musician Johnny Greenwood is programmed alongside these composers not as adhesive but as contrast.
Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver opened the concert. It's an absorbing collage of string sound, destabilising, seductive and occasionally intimidating. It's unsurprising that he incorporated part of it into his score for There Will Be Blood, a film that demands a third, abstract but morally opaque character off camera; a nasty noumenon, if you like. Certainly the gestures of the music seem programmatic. I enjoyed the performance, the strings of the BBCSO standing to perform.
They stayed standing up for Stravinsky's Apollo. This was arguably the highlight of the evening, a shimmering, limpid exercise of string élan. Great ensemble, great sound but emotionally rather blanched - echt Neoclassical performance, in other words. Super.
To be honest, though I'm a fervent Radiohead/Greenwood fan I'd really come to see Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus. Actually, we saw only the second act, The Arches, a stylised, episodic re-telling of Orpheus' journey back from the depths of Hades after having gone down to retrieve his lover Euridice. It's what I'm rapidly coming to believe to be classic Birtwistle - unrelenting, slightly frenetic, constant density music of barely any tonal centre but amazingly, noteworthily orchestrated. It's a tough listen but not because you're ever straining to hear sounds - rather because it's tricky to hear any musical contour.
Indeed, many didn't manage to withstand the onslaught. Not only did the music play to an audience diminished in numbers from the first half, but there was also a steady trickle of concert-goers who three in the towel and left during the performance. I wonder how much this had to do with the imposition of the semi-staging shenanigans that all performers were required to participate in (I'm reliably informed that the BBCSO were very reluctant to wave mirrors around and fall asleep/wake up again).
Actually, for all my cynicism with regard to this stylised posturing, this is where this piece is more allied to Stravinsky's neo-classicism than one might otherwise have thought at the outset. The music, the drama is meant to be more totemic than expressionist. It's just a bit of a pity that the score is too consistently 'full' to allow dramatic ebb & flow or development.
The performances were predictably excellent. Music as demanding as this can only be done very well (especially with the composer sitting in the audience). Alan Oke, Christine Brewer and Anna Stéphany were the choice of the singers - well, Claron McFadden was also outstanding, although one can't always refer to her particular vocal virtuosity as singing. The orchestra engaged with the music hungrily and with their ears as much as their instruments. The ensemble was terrific, doing Birtwistle's orchestrations real justice. The clearly in-control Martin Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth probably had quite a bit to do with that.