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S & H Concert Review

MOMENTUM: The music of Mark-Anthony Turnage Various Artists; Barbican Hall, Friday January 17th-Saturday January 19th, 2003 (CC)

 

 

Mark-Anthony Turnage was the featured artist of the Barbican’s 2003 January Composer’s Weekend. From Friday to Sunday films, live concerts and opera centring on this composer exuded from the Barbican’s every pore. The concerts I attended provided a remarkably powerful experience, frequently moving and always fascinating.

Turnage is probably most famous (or notorious) for his affinity to jazz music. If there is to be one point to be taken away from this weekend, it is that far from this being any kind of gimmick, the jazz elements function as an integral part of Turnage’s expressive core, a necessary part of his compositional armoury. As if to reinforce this loudly and clearly, one of Turnage’s most famous works started off the mini-festival in high style – the nine-movement Blood on the Floor (1993-96), whose 80-minute duration earned it a whole evening to itself. This suite for jazz ensemble is much more than a demonstration of compositional virtuosity, as it makes an indelible impact on the listener. If one can hear the influence of various twentieth-century composers – Stravinsky in the woodwind writing in ‘Junior Addict’ (the second movement, composed in response to a family member’s death through drug addiction), or Messiaen in the vital rhythmic impulse of ‘Cut Up’ (movement 7), or even Bernstein in the bright exuberance of the Prologue (‘Blood on the Floor’) – they are nevertheless subsumed under Turnage’s concept.

The complexity of Turnage’s orchestral writing seemed to keep the BBC Symphony Orchestra on its toes and, under Martyn Brabbins’ precise beat they played with a unanimity of purpose they do not always display. The soloists were exemplary: Martin Robertson made his saxophones sing; Peter Erskine displayed a jaw-dropping command of his drum-kit; John Parricelli (guitar) was superb.

If it were not for the mesmeric, fascinating qualities of Turnage’s music, attending two concerts on Saturday the 18th might have felt like overkill. Instead, it was enervating in the extreme. Beginning the afternoon concert, entitled ‘Etudes and Elegies,’ with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940), was an inspired decision. A pity the BBCSO, this time under Leonard Slatkin, did not fully get inside this music: there were distinct pointers towards rehearsal time being shunted towards the Turnage items (understandably enough). The bleak opening was not entirely together, and the second movement (Dies Irae: Allegro con fuoco) was accurate, but careful rather than exciting. The disjunct lines of the finale, ‘Requiem aeternam’ went a long way toward saving the day, with the jagged violin lines painfully expressive. Despite these shortcomings, the overall programming concept became clear as the climax of Turnage’s Your Rockaby for saxophone and orchestra (1992/3) seemed aurally connected to the Britten in the monumental nature of the orchestral gestures (the dark rhythmic impetus of the opening provided another link). Martin Robertson was once again a superb soloist, presenting the plangent lines with superb tone and confidence.

Two World Premières made up the rest of this concert. A fresh revision of Momentum (1990/1) was played back-to-back with the first performance of Etudes and Elegies (2000-2). Momentum was originally commissioned for the opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in June 1991. The title refers to the inherent energy of this music: the piece begins with appropriately bright, celebratory fanfares. Violin lines spoke of an only-just harnessed wildness, and the shadow of open-air Copland crept over the cello parts. At a mere ten minutes it was the perfect foil for Etudes and Elegies, a triptych, each part of which may be performed as an individual entity.

Despite the brass, woodwind and percussion virtuosity of the first movement of Etudes and Elegies, ‘A Quick Blast’, and the touching, strings-only, ‘A Quiet Life,’ it was the second movement, ‘Uninterrupted Sorrow’ which stood out. This evoked a frieze in sound of the utmost and most compelling beauty. The BBC Symphony strings rose to the occasion impressively.

Saturday evening’s event consisted of a concert performance (semi-staged) of Turnage’s infamous opera, Greek (1986-8). Turnage’s adaptation of Steven Berkoff’s play presents a retelling of the Oedipus myth, relocated into the East End of London. There is a gritty realism to Turnage’s setting (of course, the Oedipal basis, especially when emanating from the mouth of a ‘Sphinx’, recontextualizes and reinforces the literal meaning of the term, ‘motherfucker’). Here, indeed, was a performance in which everything fell into place. The London Sinfonietta re-affirmed its place at the top of the list of London-based instrumental ensembles by managing to sound as if they played this music every day.

If Greek retains much of its capacity to shock, its primary purpose seems now to stimulate. Of the vocal soloists, it is difficult to single out any one for special praise. Baritone Roderick Williams was convincing as the narrator Eddy; soprano Mary Plazas was breathtaking in the multiple role of Mum/Waitress 2/Sphinx 1, displaying a clear, well-rounded tone and portraying her parts powerfully. Richard Chew, another baritone, as Dad/Café Manager/Chief of Police acted superbly (the East End gait perfectly caught). Rebecca de Pont Davies (mezzo), as Wife/Waitress 1/Sphinx 2 acted and sang well, without quite being as inside the piece as the other soloists. Jac van Steen conducted with confidence.

This was a superb reaffirmation of Turnage’s talents as a composer. I only wish I had been able to be present at each and every event: in addition to the above, there was (amongst other delights), showings of the film of The Silver Tassie, an all-Turnage programme from the BCMG and another BBC Symphony Orchestra concert, featuring three Turnage pieces (including Three Screaming Popes) juxtaposed with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Treats indeed.

Colin Clarke

 


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