Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 5: Michael Collins – London Winds @ Royal Albert Hall, London

17 July 2006


The first late night prom was an interesting tribute to Mozart. It included two twentieth century pieces inspired by the composer and concluded with a performance of Mozart’s Serenade in B flat major, K361, ‘Gran Partita’.

The concert followed the wind instrument theme of the chamber prom earlier that day, with Michael Collins directing the London Winds from his clarinet. On the whole the group played with dexterity and prowess, and although there was a slightly uneven start to the thirteen instrument ensemble playing the Mozart, the performances were good.

The concert opened with Jonathan Dove’s Figures in the Garden serenade for wind octet based on music from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro (1991). The piece was commissioned by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera who were putting on Figaro that season and wanted some new music to be played in the garden preceding the opera.

The piece is split into seven movements, each inspired by features of the Mozart opera: 1) Dancing in the Dark, 2) Susanna in the Rain, 3) A conversation, 4) Barbarina Alone, 5) The Countess Interrupts a Quarrel, 6) Voices in the Garden and 7) Nocturne: Figaro and Susanna.

The programme includes a quote by Dove reporting on the work’s premiere: ‘When the Serenade was first performed, the birds actually joined in; they were sitting in the ivy, just above the wind players.’ Listening to this almost minimalist music, that account is very plausible. Parts of the music sound much like the incessant busy chatter of a garden alive with nature.

The rhythmic opening of the first movement captured the Mozart opera’s own overture with its morning freshness and luminous sunrise. However, it was modernised by Dove to include large, triumphant American sounds and punchy rhythms. The piece went on to include soaring lyricism and imaginative textural interest.

The middle work was Colin Matthews’ To Compose Without the Least Knowledge of Music a musical dice-game (1991). This basically means composing by numbers so as soon as I heard its title, I was weary as to whether this would be a replica of the 60s John Cage-style avant-garde experimentalism, or whether it would actually include any new ideas.

Well, at first it just seemed to be a very standard neo-classical offering which sounded like it was composed by one of Mozart’s less talented colleagues. Therefore, I thought that it was just an exercise to show how Mozart provided formulae for producing similar pieces. This was popular at the time for people who had no musical training. However, to produce this piece to prove that the dice method of composing was not invented by twentieth-century experimentalists seemed like a waste of good prom space. Couldn’t this point have been better made in a musicological paper?

Thankfully it soon became clear that Matthews had something else in store, as a bizarre and comical explosion of small motivic fragments of the original theme were spat out at seemingly random intervals of time and pitch. The more standard music returned. This pattern continues in a rondo-like form with nothing to connect the sections apart from the thematic material. You might think that this would be ample glue, however, when the parts are so stylistically different this is not the case. Instead of sounding like an inspired play on convention, the piece came across as trying to break ground in an already explored field. If the simple but interesting idea of composing by numbers is to be developed, this piece did not do it. Perhaps someone will find a way, but not Colin Matthews.

The concert concluded with Mozart’s grand serenade. This piece sees the composer doubling the standard number of instruments in a wind ensemble and then adding in extra interest like two basset-horns and a double bass.

Grand this serenade certainly is, with its seven movements and large mix of styles from charming minuetti to the beautiful lyric adagios and the rousing finale. It is complex music which is able to enchant those with simple tastes, as Mozart’s music so often is. Continuing the theme from the first piece of the concert, this music was written for the outdoors, its breezy feel and fresh sound was wonderfully conveyed by the performers.

This concert was well put together with good performers and interesting variation in the programme, which allowed for some surprises and a good mix of thought provoking material and wafting, dreamy melodies which were effective for the late evening.



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