A blog on gigs, music, art and London.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Jubilation - The Music Of George Benjamin, Southbank Centre, 12/05/12 - 13/05/12

I was at the Southbank Centre last weekend for Jubilation, their two day event celebrating the music of British composer George Benjamin. I didn’t make the concert in the Purcell Room featuring some of his chamber works but was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to see the London Sinfonietta play three of his pieces alongside two works by György Ligeti.

The concert began with Melodien by Ligeti. It certainly contained some key Ligeti characteristics although sounded not quite as dense as pieces like Atmospheres. The music seemed to swell from the stage, advancing and receding almost as if under the control of some kind of strange, invisible tidal force. It was followed by Flight, Benjamin’s 1976 piece for solo flute. It was performed tonight by Michael Cox. The programme notes spoke of how Benjamin was inspired to write it after seeing birds flying over the Swiss Alps and it successfully recreated the movement and patterns associated with bird flight. With the sharp variations in pitch and speed it seemed to present itself as a companion piece to Olivier Messiaen’s attempts to replicate the sounds of birdsong (apt, given that Messiaen was Benjamin’s teacher in the 1970s).

Antara for chamber ensemble and electronics closed the first half. Like much contemporary classical I found it to be resolutely ‘head music’ in its structural complexity but the appearance of brass and percussion later in the piece really exerted a physical force. It was also rare in being a rare (only?) example of the panpipes sharing the stage with the more familiar instruments of the orchestra. I had doubts whether it would work beforehand but against some odds they were incorporated into the soundworld with some ease. Once finished, Benjamin stood from his seat in the stalls to take the applause of the audience.

After the interval came Ligeti’s Horn Concerto. I had only heard his string-based music prior to this concert and I found this to maybe not quite have the same dense opacity as some of these, almost sounding lighter and simpler although the last three movements provided moments of starkness.

The final piece played tonight was Benjamin’s Duet for piano and orchestra. In some ways I found it one of the more orthodox pieces heard over the weekend. The piano and orchestra seemed to enjoy a kind of respectful co-existence (aided by the sound of the harp), until the latter eventually reasserted its dominance towards the end.

I was back at the Southbank Centre the following night to see the Philharmonia Orchestra play more music by the same two composers at the Royal Festival Hall.

The opening piece - Benjamin’s Jubilation for orchestra and mixed children’s group - was a strangely muted, stop-start affair (especially so given the size of orchestra on stage). The following piece, Ligeti’s Double Concerto for flute and oboe fared better. Whilst talking to Gillian Moore ahead of the concert Benjamin described it as sounding as if played in slow-motion and underwater, both of which I’d agree with. It seemed to settle over the stage, slightly inscrutably, like a thinly dispersed mist. I enjoyed Benjamin’s Palimpsests for orchestra more, its compacted orchestral fluctuations and ominous sounding brass combining to great effect. The meaning of the title of the piece found clear corroboration in the music, especially in the layering of sounds.

Ligeti’s mesmerising Lontano opened the second half and invoked real suspense and mystery, sharing a similar stillness to the earlier Double Concerto. The show ended with Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon, probably my favourite piece of the weekend. It seemed to epitomise his music - powerful and exacting without ever being wilfully difficult. Benjamin wrote it after seeing a photograph of a thunderstorm taking place over the New Mexico desert. This developed into a desire to produce a piece of music to suitably capture the tension of such an occasion. The replication of thunder and lightning on the double basses in particular was superb, and along with the orchestra conveyed some real moments of turbulence. As a piece it undoubtedly belongs to the world of contemporary classical although seemed to speak in its own distinctive language.

It may not have been quite equal to previous weekends dedicated to Edgard Varèse or Arvo Pärt, nor quite as all-encompassing in scale as the year-long celebration of Olivier Messiaen but still featured some excellent playing and some memorable moments. It was just a shame that the RFH was only half full and that many inside the hall during the first half of the concert seemed think it was fine to cough and shuffle their way through it. Such disappointments seemed in keeping with the slightly pessimistic tone struck by Benjamin in an interview with the Guardian. It was a shame – the music and performances this weekend really deserved better.

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