Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBC Concert Orchestra / Helsing @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

6 June 2019

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

The Sound of Colour is a cleverly constructed series of concerts presented by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Marrying two art forms by exploring music that either literally or metaphorically makes reference to a particular colour, these concerts – narrated by the artist Lachlan Goudie – are an attractive way of packaging mixed-work programmes that include popular favourites, but yet expose audiences to new or recherché pieces. After ‘Green’ last month, June became the month of ‘Orange’, the programme including obvious references such as Ecstatic Orange, by Michael Torke, and more oblique associations such as Grieg’s ‘Morning’ from Peer Gynt.

‘Daybreak’, the first movement of Delius’ lovely and seldom-performed Florida Suite served a double helping of the colour: not only is orange the colour of the rising sun, but the piece’s inspiration came from Delius’ experiences managing the family orange plantation in the eponymous State. The orchestra was conducted, in Bramwell Tovey’s absence, with skill and nuance by Anna-Maria Helsing, who ensured that the dynamic through the woodwind arpeggios, the birdsong and the low horn chorus was restrained enough to depict a placid dawn, the rapture of which was then celebrated in the ‘Dance’ section, surely Delius’ most carefree and joyful melody (it clearly pleased Delius sufficiently for him to adapt it for his opera Koanga).

Jonathan Dove’s Sunshine was given a slickly executed London première. It is almost minimalist, and, as with so many of Dove’s works, is eminently approachable. Its jaunty rhythmic underlay, in an alternating four- and five-beat pattern, provided the ground for slower material to rise and develop to an insistent timpani riff that disappeared back into twittering woodwind.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain is, arguably the best-know work by de Falla (as well as a reference to sunset, orange is also invoked in an irresistible pun on the pronunciation of the composer’s name). Helsing and the orchestra gave us some elegant exercises in dynamic and timbre, evoking de Falla’s exotic gardens and distant dances through held-back dynamic, muted Spanish-style trumpets, a deliciously haunting cello melody and deftly executed arabesques. Victor Sangiorgio’s relaxed and unfussy account of the piano part was perfect: this is not a piano concerto, and the instrument should be part of the texture; the piano’s placing at the front of the stage, however, occasionally gave it a touch too much prominence.

Grieg’s ever-popular ‘Morning’ was given a suitably brisk – albeit nuanced – performance, its context in the concert serving as a reminder that this is not the misty dewdrop-on-flower northern dawn of television advertising, but a portrayal of the more ochre-tinted sunrise of Peer Gynt’s sojourn in Morocco.

Like Scriabin, the American composer Michael Torke is a synaesthete (he perceives colour as sound), and for him, the note G-sharp – around which Ecstatic Orange is based – represents the colour. It’s a relentlessly busy and complex minimalist work in which short musical fragments are passed around the orchestra over a driving eight and four-beat rhythm. The orchestra rose to the challenge, and gave an exciting and multi-textured account.

Texture – along with dynamic – was also the watchword for the first-rate performance of Prokofiev’s suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges. Helsing’s excellent direction ensured that all of the fairytale tropes were contrasted: the mercurial mix of galumphing strings and bubbling woodwind in the opening movement; the ominous brass chords representing the two magicians in the second; the comic, oboe-opened march of Truffaldino; the twinkly timbres of the fourth movement; the yearning bassoons and warm horns of the fourth; and the busy, sawing strings of ‘Flight’.

The concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 1 July at 14:00.

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BBC Concert Orchestra / Helsing @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London