Review: Royal Philharmoinc Orchestra – The Music of Eric Whitacre @ St David’s Hall

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Eric Whitacre, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, Cardiff Ardwyn Singers & Côrdydd – The Music of Eric Whitacre
St David’s Hall
Friday 2nd June 2017

Eric Whitacre is a name and face known to me, yet never more than mild familiarity. He would frequent BBC Proms concerts and it’s Extra programme. As it turns out this American composer is pretty popular and has a growing reputation.

In a packed pre-show talk, he spoke of his hate of Serial music (I love it, but alls hate it) and was billed as the great choral composer of today. This post would remain with the late, great John Tavener if he was still us. Tavener is exceptional for his writing for choirs is the most been written since the renaissance, by a single composer. Whitacre is certainly not Tavener, but his music is taking hold of people and is carrying the baton further afield.

Without a break in between them, Whitacre’s Water Night and Oarwa by Wojciech Kilar opened this mesmeric concert. Both pieces are steeped in the minimalism that is still evident in America and Polish music. I would have preferred applause between them, so we as an audience could know when one piece has ended and another is about to begin. Eric was conducting, so the buck stops with him.

With the mass of Welsh choirs on hand here, A Boy and Girl and Five Hebrew Love Songs are basic choral fodder. The former is a subtle and bland piece and the latter an infuriatingly tacky, score with verse by his Israeli wife. What really stole the show was his music to end first half. Whilst in uni, he was told to take things more seriously and should consider writing a symphony. His response to this was the piece Godzilla Eats Las Vegas.

This is we’re both orchestra and chorus come together brilliantly in an utterly bonkers piece, that is as funny as it is outrageous. Eric has even wrote a script for it, so has been and continues to be made into film work. It would be a piece animators would eat for breakfast. So much goes on here, Sinatra and Liberace and even vegans are flattened by the great lizard, he mambos, later dances with the Luxor Sphinx, a group of Elvis impersonators (the plural is Elvi) attempt to take Godzilla down, Gershwin’s famous clarinet glissando is quoted and the sleazy sense of the Sin City is defined with crazy brass riffs and show tunes galore. Everyone had a blast taking part in it and it was even more pleasurable to hear it live. In short, a great comedic composition.

Still, humoured by the last piece, the tone completely changed for the second half as we would be joined by Bach. We were treated to the choir’s hearty rendition of the great German masters Come Sweet Death, including poses with hands and arms. Following straight on was Edwin London’s utterly exquisite experimentation of the piece, as each singers picks up part of the piece and extends it for different durations. The effect live was outstanding and the whole audience was left dumbfounded at the power of breaking up the piece. The fact there were no electronics involved was also impressive as to the ear, it sound like those manipulation were going on. A piece of music that winds you in the gut.

Keeping with Bach, Eric has a world premier for us with his Bachianus Americanus. Inspired by the famous C minor Prelde from his Well-Tempered Clavier, the name comes from Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos. We hear the piece first in the original piano part and then the strings take over, as they seem to dwell on moments in the score, to little effect.

There had been a buzz about his newer piece Deep Field at the BBC Proms back in 2015. Flyers for the concert informed us to download the app for the full experience. Although I was curious, I sadly had no space on my phone nor the the battery power either. This piece is inspired by the Hubble Telescope and it’s journey into space taking breathtaking photographs of never before seen galaxies, Eric regards the most important pictures ever taken. Few would disagree.

The music harks back to Holst and Scriabin in their cosmic aesthetics and the choirs, who arrive in the aisles for the ending, vocalise in moving and atmospheric spheres. Even the house lights are dimmed and Eric indicates to get the app live to experience the video work on your phone. Creaking my neck to see what was on people’s phones, it was a visual journey through space which did add to the mood, whilst even the synths coming from all the phones were a special touch. The sight of mobile phones lighting up the concert may strike me as infuriating, but Deep Field does break down barriers and makes the concert hall experience all the more joyful and moving. An ending of a concert not to be forgotten.

Had timing been right, this could have been a superb ending concert for the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Yet, through the aged rock star veneer lies a composer of great value in today’s age.

Please return soon Eric with more, enticing music!

A supreme musical discovery. 

Rating: 4 stars


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