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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Concert Review: All About the Benjamin

The Orchestra of St. Luke's explores the modern British composers.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Chillin' with Pablo: Orchestra of St. Luke's principal conductor Pablo Heras-Casado
takes a backstage break. Photo by Felix Broede from hs website
The British composer George Benjamin has emerged as an important voice in the 21st century, with his opera Written on Skin and instrumental works gaining in popularity and performance. On Sunday afternoon, conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St. Luke's offered its second program of the current NY PHIL BIENNIAL, exploring works by Mr, Benjamin, this year's Musical America composer of the year, and other composers who are his influences and followers in the current flowering of contemporary British music.

Before the concert started, there was a small change in program. Colin Matthews Night Rides was moved to the leadoff spot, forming a pair with his earlier work Suns Dance. As played by the Orchestra of St. Luke's musicians under the leadership of Mr.  Heras-Casado, Night Rides proved a rewarding score, recalling the driving rhythms that power Siegmund's flight at the beginning of Die Walküre, suspenseful music that might be the accompaniment to the opening of some undeen opera.

Sun Dances was more difficult. Matthews calls for a wind ensemble featuring piccolo , bass clarinet and contrabassoon to do battle with a "standard" string quintet. The composer creates tension by having his players perform rapid figuration, juxtaposing unlikely sounds in a set of lurching, awkward dances.  There is a suggestion of great planets moving through orbit--with the steady bellow of the contra perhaps creating a roar of solar wind.

Then it was time for Mr. Benjamin's Octet. Written for an unusual instrument combination (celeste, violin, viola, double bass, piccolo, oboe, French horn, percussion) this is a fast, skittering scherzando that keeps moving forward. The music had a spidery grace, like a delicate silver frame holding up moments of jewel-like, intense beauty. The technical difficulty of the music and unusual instrumental choices recall his teacher Olivier Messiaen.

Helen Grime may be the least-known composer on this program but her Luna proved to be a work of instant appeal. Tuned percussion (xylophone and vibraphone) laid down a carpet of notes before the solo French horn rose majestically from the depths, in an arching call that recalled heroic moments in Wagner's Ring. The doleful and lengthy English horn solo in the closingh bars reminded one of the shepherd's pipe in Act III of Tristan und Isolde, affecting and utterly forlorn. It also says something for this Scotland-based composer that she was in attendance, coming up onstage to receive applause when her piece ended.

Next up, Audrey Fischer joined the orchestra to sing Mr. Benjamin's Upon Silence, an elaborate but not ornate chamber setting of the Yeats poem Long-Legged Fly. Ms. Fischer put herself into the triple narrative of the Yeats text, immersing herself in the personae of Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy and Michaelangelo on his back painting the Sistine Chapel. With melodic fragments and repetition, this story spun gracefully forward, riding this singer's big voice to its central insectile image.

The final piece on the program was Inventions by Ryan Wigglesworth. A full-on collision between baroque theory and modern compositional practice, this piece featured the entire force of the Orchestra of St. Luke's playing complex contrapuntal lines in a manner that did not copy Bach's two-part inventions but certainly did the composer homage. With delicate string figures and a thrilling old-fashioned voluntary for the solo trumpet, this short work finally allowed the listener to hear this excellent orchestra at full strength for the first time in this festival.

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