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Robin Holloway: Scenes from Antwerp Op. 85 (1998)
by John France

I have not heard a great deal of music by Robin Holloway during the past forty-five years or so: this is a matter that I will remedy as the opportunity arises. I first came across Holloway in Glasgow, when his ‘Concerto for Orchestra No. 2’ was performed by the Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Sir Alexander Gibson, on the 22 September 1979. I enjoyed this work and noted that it received a number of positive reviews.
Recently, I came across Holloway’s Scenes from Antwerp, which dates from the summer/autumn of 1997 and was written expressly for the Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra. At that time he was the composer in residence for the 1996/7 concert season.
Antwerp is one of my favourite northern European cities: I think that the Grand Place is just as impressive as the more famous one in Brussels. I remember the first time I went there, they were restoring Rubens’ ‘The Descent from the Cross’ in the Cathedral, Our Lady of Antwerp. In those days most of the bars sold a delightful sour-beer brewed by Rodenbach- they possibly still do. And then there were the ubiquitous ‘moules et frites’.
Robin Holloway’s Pictures of Antwerp is an evocative ‘depiction of the Burg on the Scheldt with its vast rainy gull-filled skies and extravagant late nineteenth-century architecture’ and was the result of his two-year association with the Orchestra. Holloway writes that ‘music can’t paint pictures or take photographs. The final result is necessarily more evocative, atmospheric, impressionistic, abstract.’ He considers that his work is not ‘a picture-postcard of Antwerp, nor even an easel-painting: the sensory "input" from the city - mainly visual, also of smell, sound, taste, touch - is infused with feelings and moods and the interplay of time and place; things that music can do uniquely well, in compensation for its inability to give specific information like a map or a timetable.’
Holloway has stated that the inspiration for the Scenes was found whilst taking time out from working. He enjoyed ‘taking long solitary walks around the city and port, looking, listening, absorbing.’ During these explorations around Antwerp, he carried a music notebook into which he would jot down ideas that came into his head, especially concerning the talents of specific players. This concentration on individual sounds and faces led him towards what was effectively a ‘concerto for orchestra’, where instruments are showcased against a background of accompanying sound.
The work is presented in two sections, which are themselves divided into two:-
I Street, Skies, and II. Docks, Domes. Scenes from Antwerp is scored for a large orchestra, including saxophones and an array of percussion.
Holloway’s programme notes deserve quoting in full:-
‘There are two halves, each divided into two sections. The first half begins with streets - a mosaic of fanfare motifs, snatches of whistling, with motions of walking, running, cycling; generally physical, lively, energetic. Towards its end, the fanfares twice coalesce into a bright dissonant quasi-chorale. A second, climactic version leads into the second section of this first half, skies; all clouds, currents of air, rain and sun, wheeling seagulls - a ‘scherzino’ of light rapid motion enclosing a lyrical trio played by groups of solo strings, in its middle a further trio with woodwinds and brass in dialogue, after which the string-music returns on their entire body. The return of the ‘scherzino’ is drastically foreshortened, evaporating in a few seconds like scudding clouds.
After all this fast music the second half is basically slow. It begins with music initially jotted down during long walks around the harbour-area. What emerges is an aria for solo saxophones, in three stanzas that grow increasingly impassioned: this is followed by a vision of the deep, broad, sluggish Scheldt. The second section, domes, makes a coda to the whole work, an apotheosis of the city by way of its grandest and most flamboyant buildings, such as the extravagant railway station and the opulent ostentation of the nineteenth-century buildings on Meir, first seen from a distance, then gradually moving closer until we stand directly beneath. Snatches of fanfare from the streets section alternate with string music from the river section, crowned at the close by a grandiose figure that makes a kind of metaphor for a stone or guilded dome rising proudly into a confident sky.’
Robin Holloway’s website points out that the composer and critic Bayan Northcott (b.1940) noted that this work was for all intents and purposes a ‘concerto for orchestra.’ Holloway concedes this criticism. That ‘form’ was certainly popular with the composer. Up to the present there have been five examples of ‘concertos for orchestra’ from his pen. The second evoked North Africa (1978-9) the third (1981/94) was descriptive of South America.
Scenes from Antwerp is fundamentally an enjoyable work: there is nothing here displaying angst or violence. It shows considerable brilliance and vibrancy in the scoring of the various orchestral divisions, as well as the individual soloists and groups of soloists, which present varied material. Especially notable is the prominent, and often lugubrious, parts given to the saxophones. There is also an over-arching virtuosity apparent in the orchestra as a whole. It reminded me of Roberto Gerhard’s fine Concerto for Orchestra from 1965, in its skill and vivacity. The stylistic parameters are clearly a subtle balance between the composer’s inherent modernism, and a late nineteenth century romanticism that is never absent from these pages for long.
The composer has alluded to the portrait of Paris painted by Frederick Delius and the London of Elgar’s Cockaigne and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony as models of a concept: certainly not of structure or sound.
The premiere was on 9 October 1998 in the Der Singel which is part of the International Arts Campus. The conductor was Grant Llewellyn.
Robin Holloway’s Scenes from Antwerp, Op. 85 can be heard on a recording uploaded onto YouTube which was taken from a radio broadcast with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was broadcast on 2 July 1999 and included the same composer’s Clarinet Concerto as well as a conversation between the composer and Verity Clark. However, I believe that this work is of considerable importance and quality, that a studio recording is an essential requirement.
John France

With thanks to Robin Holloway for his kind permission to use the detailed programme notes for his Scenes from Antwerp.