BBC PHILHARMONIC Bridgewater Hall and live Radio 3
A CONCERTO for drum kit and orchestra? Sounds like the ideal formula for classical music to get down with the kids and bridge the gap with popular culture.
Well, Mark Anthony Turnage’s Erskine – Concerto For Drum Set And Orchestra (named in honour of its soloist, Peter Erskine), receiving its
under principal guest conductor John Storgårds, didn’t exactly pull in the
But then, they may have all been listening on Radio 3 instead. I wish.
Turnage’s music is attractive to those who like complicated sounds as well as modern rhythms, but it isn’t popular in style. Its fans are classical cognoscenti – music critics and suchlike.
I found the concerto constantly fascinating, certainly never boring. As a conceptual construction, I think it has weaknesses. Much of the time Erskine (the man) was drumming along with the orchestra as he might with a band in more conventional style. Then, every so often, it all stopped and he launched into a free solo – not exactly the kind of relationship between soloist and the rest that ‘concerto’ normally implies.
Admirable aspects of it were the sly send-up of ‘cool’ dance music in the Habanera movement, the exposition of the drum kit’s gentler sounds in the Blues, and the brilliantly written rhythm-only fugue for soloist and three other percussionists that begins the finale (though it’s hardly a first: Ernst Toch did something similar with speaking voices in his Geographical Fugue).
The concerto was placed amid a sequence of pieces designed to catch the idea of ‘joy’. Appropriately in the year of his death, Joybox by John McCabe (premiered by the Phil at the Proms in 2013), was the opener. It builds its complexities wittily and contrapuntally and, rather like Ravel’s La Valse, makes a mid-course gear-change into controlled chaos.
There were three Stravinsky pieces from the 1940s: Ode, Scherzo A La Russe and the hilarious Circus Polka. The first included music originally designed for an outdoor film scene score and curiously reminiscent of Walton’s outdoor music for Henry V (written about the same time); the other two were lively relaxations.
Ives’ The Unanswered Question came into play as a contrast, I suppose, but keeping on the American theme of the season. Its atmospheric strings (led by Yuri Torchinsky) and stark trumpet and flutes altercation, were potent as ever.
But the final item – Antheil’s ‘Joyous’ Symphony (no. 5) was one of the most joyless pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s easy on the ear, and has a thrilling speed-up to the end of the first movement, but it’s also sentimentally tawdry, repetitive and trite. Pity that was the best example of musical joy they could think of.