BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Ludovic Morlot; The Bridgewater Hall, 25 November 2017.

The world premiere of Arlene Sierra’s Nature Symphony tonight offers the audience a rare opportunity to hear the composer’s work performed in the UK. Brought up in Miami and New York but now resident in London, Sierra has collaborated with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra several times for performances of other works of hers such as Moler in 2012, a piece prompted by teeth grinding and taking off from the Alice in Chains song ‘Grind’ via a request from the Symphony’s artistic administrator to try to engage with Seattle’s rich lineage of grunge and alt-rock acts for its Sonic Evolution Series.

Other works by Sierra take on fascinatingly diverse subject matter such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and military strategy, evolutionary biology, entomology, game theory, architecture and the built environment, siege engines and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. These works have been performed internationally and she has been the recipient of many awards such as the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Charles Ives Fellowship and the Takemitsu Prize in 2001. So while she might be a new name to many, or some, in the audience her Nature Symphony certainly arrives with a level of expectation, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The main subject matter of this new piece is obviously nature and within Sierra’a music the characteristics of this derive inwardly from compositional, instrumental and artistic ideas, and the characteristics of the orchestra itself, rather than through the composer herself trying to outwardly impose impressions of the natural world upon the orchestra. Her approach is to concentrate on actions that happen within nature and the nuts and bolts of its systems and processes then draw these out of each instrument to construct suggestive, quite meticulous statements of sound. Each movement of the Nature Symphony is slightly programmatic being based around specific sites where natural phenomena occur, on natural objects or things and also drawing influence from paintings. Prior themes reoccur through her interest within the piece in insects and strategy. She also borrows in movements one and two from previous works, her Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013) and Hearing Things (2008) respectively.

The first movement ‘Mountain of Butterflies’ makes reference to a location in Mexico where Monarch butterflies end their migration en masse and become a butterfly mountain. It relies heavily on the full range of percussion instruments, from gongs, timpani, glockenspiel and xylophone down to different egg shakers. Ideas of mass and density are played off against those of lightness, delicacy and immateriality. This explorative scope perhaps mimics the scale of the natural world. It’s an assured, enthralling opening movement and the orchestra under Morlot’s alert direction show they have the necessary refinement to convey the intricacies, textures and balance of Sierra’s sound world.

In the perturbing second movement ‘The Black Place (after O’Keeffe)’ pizzicato strings and a muted, repetitive harp figure come to the fore lending a feeling of stasis and standstill while also signifying the organic matter that exists in the isolated, stark environment of the high desert. The music holds a near sinister and simmering darkness as it evocates Georgia O’Keeffe’s arid, dusty and empty paintings of New Mexico landscapes. And it is a kind of night music that Sierra delivers here. The title refers not only to the state of the geographical, physical landscape but to the mental condition too, while also perhaps making reference to O’Keeffe’s gradually failing sight. Much like those paintings, highly colourful yet pervaded by a foreboding blackness, it’s an ambiguous section of music that seems to come into and disappear out of focus, being both vivid and tense together.

This tension continues into the third movement ‘Bee Rebellion’ where Sierra explores ideas around the order and conditions imposed by nature and what happens when this goes wrong. This is either based on the end of the natural life-cycle of the hive when worker bees destroy what they have built (due to exposure to wax of a different chemical composition than normal that makes them aggressive and reproductively competitive), or it could refer to what is now known as Colony Collapse Disorder where worker bees simply abandon the hive. Suitably the music in this movement drones, hums and buzzes. Through sharp dynamic contrasts it fashions or engineers the and unbalanced activity of the hive

Nature Symphony is full of arresting, captivating and very mesmeric music. Sierra is a trained dancer and her sensibility towards movement and rhythm is abundantly present in the work. Rich and detailed in textures the music moves around mechanisms and somewhat clandestine systems that stay rhythmically and melodically close together yet expand through distinct changes in timbre and resonance. Sierra takes a bow on stage afterwards to warm, appreciative applause and it is a privilege to be among the first audience to hear the work.

Further connections between Europe and America can be made in the following pieces, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88. Both composers had professional stints in the USA. Bartok eventually and resentfully emigrated there in 1940 under threat from fascism while Dvořák visited there more willingly from 1892-1895 to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Interesting contrasts emerge here. The USA greatly assisted Dvorák in his exploration of traditional ‘American Music’ and of course led to his completion of some of his most famous and well-received work, Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’ being the most obvious example. But the same can’t be said for Bartok who struggled to compose and whose continuing research into and cataloguing of the traditional and folk music of various parts of Eastern Europe was somewhat stymied, mostly due to his dire financial circumstances. Both works heard tonight by both composers appeared just before they left Europe yet both point towards, and are in themselves, new directions and creative lines that would ultimately explicate due to their exposure to a new country.

With the percussion section reorganised and massed at the very front of the stage, as if they could end up in the stalls with any wrong or too extravagant movement, it is time to hear Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 1. They crowd Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, tonight’s soloist, quite threateningly. Bartok suggests this positioning himself and one mode of thinking here is that the move is to emphasise the piano as a percussive instrument due to the hammers that strike its internal strings as much as it is to accentuate the pivotal role and centrality that the percussionists have throughout the concerto. Technically the piano is a chordophone, a kind of hybrid between a string and percussion instrument, but the music and the creative thinking here is organised around the latter, especially since the program (quite correctly) emphasises the Concerto’s hammering nature. Composed in 1926 the Concero was one of several works that ended Bartók’s creative silence of that time and the work, through its incorporation of sections of counterpoint, showcases Bartók’s new interest in Baroque music and the mating of that with his more usual experimentation and melodic, rhythmic obstinacy. Bartók has to be admired for his refusal, his refusal to make things easy and his refusal to go along with the general stream of what was acceptable and usual.

Bavouzet brings a welcome and superb flair to the solo part with some elaborate rising and falling arm gestures to round off phrases and passages. His stage presence is warm, genial and gladsome. Naturally this partially defines his playing which is at times audacious and at others displays a sensitivity that belies the hardness and severity of the piece. This area is not unproblematic though, through no fault of Bavouzet’s. The acoustics of the Bridgewater can suck up the soloist at times and leave them a little inaudible. Having a large battery of enthusiastic and very active percussionists around the piano does, in moments, slightly affect the balance. But it is fantastic to see such vitality and force from these players up-close, and the rest of the Philharmonic are similarly enterprising and zealous in their approach.

If Bartok was deliberately challenging, intractably complex in his approach and inherently resistant to popularism then the next work heard tonight apparently stands in stark contrast to that. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 was written at a crossroads in the composer’s life and compositional career. Dvorák composed the Symphony at his summer retreat in Vysoká u Příbramě in 1889 and while at the surface level all seems hopeful and optimistic, beneath this there is some stirred up aesthetic R&D taking place. This may not come across as obviously – non-melodically speaking – as in the Bartók, but formally and tonally Dvořák flips his script. Take the multiplicity of interlinked themes presented in the first movement, all played with vigour and frankness by the orchestra, or the exquisite more mono-thematic Adagio that comes directly after where the search for new ideas comes through in the scoring, arrangement and the use of the full textures of the orchestra. There is also a strong Middle-Eastern vibe in the woodwind, played mysteriously and opulently here. This is a moody, changeable work and Morlot and the orchestra work together to bring these to light perceptibly.

Really, in many ways, you couldn’t place two more diametric composers and two more contradictory pieces next to one another in a program. Dvořák actively seeks out the big, catchy tune and the grand gesture. Although in its own specifically Dvořák-ian way the Symphony is experimental. The Symphony, like other Dvořák works has not been unproblematic for critics. Michael Beckerman mentions that: ‘Dvořák’s music and its popularity signalled a late nineteenth-century shift away from the ideas of high musical art inherent in the premodern and capitalist tradition. For Adorno, the symptoms of that shift were the orchestral medley masquerading as a symphony, and the commercial hit tune. Both these evils were present in Dvořák’s work. Adorno understood, albeit implicitly, that part of Dvořák’s explicit project as a composer was to bridge the gulf between the public of the concert hall and the emergent world of modern popular music.’ Coming from a late-Romantic vantage point it’s perhaps harsh to charge the composer with such offences from today’s position. After all he provides such unashamed auditory pleasure. Maybe the best way of looking at this is that for Dvořák the challenge was to himself and his own creative sensibilities, rather than in trying to challenge or pull down ruling principles and aesthetic hegemony.

One senses that the BBC Philharmonic enjoy a challenge too. They are as explorative as all the composers heard from tonight and their bright (in both senses of that word), potent interpretations demonstrate their brilliant facility to view things from all three perspectives on offer. Their exploration and choice of music from dissimilar but also contradictorily alike quotas of the classical spectrum is seriously refreshing.

Simon Haworth

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