Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBC Concert Orchestra/Charles Hazlewood – Electronica @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

6 October 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

If you will excuse the pun, Electronica is a three-part series of concerts devised by the BBC Concert Orchestra to switch people’s minds on to the possibilities of combining electronics and orchestra. It is also one designed to illustrate innovations made by composers well before the advent of the synthesizer.

This first evening was wryly and humorously compred by Jarvis Cocker, ahead of a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 19th November. With his subtle insights and the imaginative program, we were able to see just how far composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Mikls Rzsa had already advanced electronic possibilities, and how musicians we have come to regard as pop’, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, have seized the initiative from the other perspective.

Though we heard no music by Edgard Varse, his influence was palpable, not least in the extraordinary Suite Delphique from Andr Jolivet, interpreting modal Ancient Greek themes and giving their processed results to an ensemble of wind, percussion and ondes martenot, beautifully judged by Valrie Hartmann-Claverie. This is an extraordinary instrument, and listening to it is akin to hearing a wind instrument in space, where as Cocker described it, there are “not specific notes, but wiggly lines”. It gave off an eerie sound for Jolivet, while Greenwood used a pair to more exotic and celebratory effect in smear, which gave off the image of clusters of notes orbiting a central pitch.

The Theremin, too, was afforded a night in the spotlight, and again we had two, played by Celia Sheen and Lydia Karina. Herrmann’s suite from The Day The Earth Stood Still was the main beneficiary of the duo, though this Hitchcock soundtrack also benefitted from masterly orchestration, with plaintive brass in the Lincoln Memorial movement and a real weirdness to the main theme of Outer Space. He also successfully conjured a combination of speed and stasis, bringing an unusual tension to his music.

Few thoughts on the evolution of electronic music would be complete without the Moog, so it seemed only right that Will Gregory’s piece should incorporate that and several other synthesizers, pitching them intriguingly against a large orchestra. The suite of music making up Journeys into the Sky was drawn from material making up the opera of the same name, due to receive its world premiere at the 2011 Ether festival. The subject matter, Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer’s pioneering balloon trip to the edge of space in 1931, was brought to life through Gregory’s own Moog Ensemble, depicting both feelings of alienation and weightlessness, dropping anchor impressively when required. Gregory’s floated style with Goldfrapp could occasionally be glimpsed, but this music bodes very well for the opera itself, shaping up to be a sizeable and emotive work.

A lengthy but invigorating program also included Rzsa’s Spellbound Concerto for Orchestra, a suite from the Oscar-winning soundtrack that allowed the BBC Concert Orchestra a chance to flex their muscles and remind us just how versatile they are. This is, after all, the band that accompany BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night!

Here they were totally at home on the edge of musical space, the evening’s climax bringing timeless synth pop to living, breathing orchestral life in the form of a vivid Anne Dudley arrangement of Kraftwerk’s The Model. It was a suitable way to finish – and at the same time, whetted our appetite for more.

Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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