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Elgar, Graham Fitkin and Shostakovich: Sioned Williams (MIDI harp), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, 26.01.2011 (BBr)

Elgar: Overture: Cockaigne (In London Town), op.40 (1901)

Graham Fitkin: No Doubt (Concerto for MIDI harp) (2010)

Shostakovich: Symphony No.12 in D minor, "The Year 1917", op.112 (1957)

The MIDI harp is a very new instrument, and tonight was the first time it had been heard in public. Graham Fitkin's Concerto must be reviewed in three ways - as the introduction of a new instrument, as a Harp Concerto, and as a Concerto for MIDI harp. Put simply, the MIDI harp is a harp connected to a computer and sampled sounds can be accessed when certain notes are played. For his work Fitkin admitted only using only some of the possibilities of the instrument and that was no bad thing, for trying to use every application would have left little chance for real music. Fitkin sampled certain statements made by American politicians, concerning weapons of mass destruction; syllables and individual sounds derived from those words and also full sentences were heard at times during the work. Because the MIDI harp is amplified Fitkin found he could use a very large orchestra and write a piece which was unlike the usual small scale harp concerto. It's a piece about male posturing, machismo if you like, hence the text and the huge orchestration. As a Concerto for MIDI harp Fitkin has succeeded in giving the instrument a good launch. However, whether or not it is a piece one would wish to hear again is debatable. As a Concerto for concert harp it would need some work to convert it, such as scaling down the scoring, but there might be an interesting piece in here, somewhere. I imagine that the performance was totally committed; it certainly appeared so.

Shostakovich's 12th Symphony celebrates the 1917 Russian Revolution with music of extrovert gaudiness. The BBC Symphony obviously had a really good time playing the piece and it showed in every bar. The piece emerged as a thrilling example of cinema verité - the music is very pictorial; gunfire, explosions and the roaring of the crowd are all vividly displayed. It's not a subtle piece, but who really cares? It works simply as a sonic experience with good, and very satisfying, construction. Litton allowed the music to entertain and didn't make any attempt to "interpret" it, it really can't take that kind of approach anyway.

Bob Briggs

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