Monday, 2 May 2016


It's been a weekend of contemporary music at St David's Hall, Cardiff. On Saturday lunchtime, the last of this season's series of lunchtime contemporary concerts was given by Cardiff's own Arcomis Ensemble, featuring the fabulous violinist Rhys Watkins. Preparations for the next season's series is now in full swing.

On Sunday afternoon, St David's Hall and the Welsh National Opera Orchestra launched their ambitious THREE concert three premieres of newly commissioned works by living composers presented in one concert. The project was already well-advanced when I joined the Hall as its Classical Music Adviser at the end of 2014, but it has been fascinating to see how it evolved. 

The performances represent three very different kinds of new music. The opening piece, Mametz Wood, was by Gareth Glyn, though, in his words, he didn't compose a note of it. The work was a collaboration between him and pupils from Michaelson Community College, Corpus Christi High School and Radyr Comprehensive. Under the guidance of composers Helen Woods and James Williams, the pupils created a range of 'raw' musical ideas that were then woven by Gareth into a deft and and very effective orchestral work. The inspiration for the ideas came from a painting by Christopher Wood (1873-1934) in the National Gallery of Wales, The Welsh at Mametz Wood, based on the First World War incident during the battle of the Somme. 

This then moved on to a commission from Welsh composer Pwyll ap Siôn: a series of four songs, Chaotic Angels, for soprano and orchestra setting poems by Gwyneth Lewis, one of Wales’s most respected poets.  I've followed Pwyll's music since first hearing it at an SPNM concert at Bangor University where we were both having works performed back in 1991, but these songs were the most impressive work I have heard from his pen: a wonderful clarity and response to the powerful words, sung here by young Welsh soprano Céline Forrest (photo below from yesterday's performance). 

The commission came around because, back in 1997, as a very young composer, Pwyll had been commissioned to write a song cycle for the Welsh Proms which, for various reasons, had not been performed at the time. We initially had the idea of giving the piece a belated performance, but Pwyll, like most composers, was more interested in composing a new work. 

Finally, for the third work, St David’s Hall was one of four international co-commissioners for the Babylon-Suite by one of the most critically acclaimed German composers of his generation, Jörg Widmann. 

The suite is drawn from one of the most ambitious and lavish operatic premieres of the last few years (you can see an extract here). a real tour de force in its virtuosic use of the modern symphony orchestra with around 100 performers on the stage (St David's Hall had to bring out its rarely used second stage extension). If you're not already familar with Widmann's music, then Tom Service's profile here is a good introduction. The Welsh National Opera Orchestra were on top form, conducted by Lothar Koenigs, giving his final performance as Music Director of WNO (and Simon Phillippo - below - in Gareth Glyn's piece). 

You can read Philip May's review for Bachtrack here.

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