Review: BBC NOW – Greats Brits #1st Concert @ Hoddinott Hall

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BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Greats Brits #1st Concert
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre
Friday 13th January 2017

British composers should always be something to celebrate, especially those who are still with us. In this series by BBC NOW, they are highlighting some of the best of British in the music of the last few decades (this concert mostly feature work from the 1990s).

In David Sawer‘s The Greatest Happiness Principle, the piece is inspired by the writing of Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social reformer. The music somehow focuses on his application of the panoptic principle to prison design (what’s that when it’s at home?). Although sounding very stuffy, prison riots have been inescapable in the media for the past few months and the theme of surveillance lingers large. Perhaps the music is keen on the idea of being observed, like the prisoners should be (without knowing they are being watched). The composition is excitable, leaving little to stay in the memory. Though the conductor losing control at the end as the musicians intentionally storm on is an inspired moment.

In his Lento, Howard Skempton is greatly inspired by Wagner’s last completed opera Parsifal. Utilising the same amount of players as the opera’s overture, Skempton creates deeply atmospheric work that is rich in medieval contemplation. Put simply, it is an extremely satisfying piece of work.

Michael Nyman is best known for his music to the films The Piano and The Draughtsman Contract. His Harpsichord Concerto is an eccentric and brilliant piece, filled with a vitality few composers today could achieve. It somehow looks to the past as a resource and then turns to the future for the vibrant, minimalist clarity that lies within.

Playing the solo here was Mahan Esfahani, who proves his mastery over the instrument. His intense, virtuosic handling of the piece had the instrument itself occasionally jolt ever so slightly away from him at times (harpsichords don’t have wheels or brakes). This memorable oddity was as pleasing as it was creepy (in the shrill like way the harpsichord is associated with).

Named after a nightclub in New York, Shut Up and Dance is Charley Barber’s take on orchestrating popular music. It has a swell tempo though can feel underwhelming, even in its many tutti moments. The apparent chords are thrust upwards and create a Latin styled mood of movement.

Apart from Nyman (who is now said to live In Mexico), all other featured composers were present at the concert. Ending the night in a magical way was Gavin Bryars who introduced his eternal Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

The story behind the work is as famous as the piece itself: Alan Power had made a documentary on homelessness in London back in 1971. Audio material that didn’t make it into the film was handed to Bryars and the rest is history. The unknown, homeless man (who didn’t drink) improvised a tune from the words: “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. There’s one thing I know, and he loves me so” etc. This man has a starring role here, as Gavin paints a gentle tapestry around the words and handles the material with much respect and sincerity.

The orchestra fold around the recording, trying to harmonise the notes of the song; the effect after a short time is mildly mesmerising. The version for ensemble with electric guitar and vocalising choir is my favourite (several arrangements exist of Jesus’ Blood, with one even featuring Tom Waits), but the orchestra created what Waits himself described as a beautiful “dust” around the concert hall.

When people had attempted to find this singing man a week later they discovered that he had passed away. His identity will never be known, but who ever he was, his voice and love of life, lives on thanks to Bryars.

A brilliantly British night.

Rating: 5 stars

BBC NOW continue the Greats Brits theme in a 2nd concert Hoddinott Hall on 3rd February 2017, along with the continuation of Welsh Foundations 3, celebrating composers from Wales on 27th January 2017. They’ll be back at St. David’s Hall on Friday 20th January 2017 for Mahler 6th Symphony. 


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