VSorals, anemones, crunchy shrimp pops, nibbling on parrotfish devouring the reef: an entire ecosystem under threat. How can a composer say something useful about the climate crisis? When Elgar wrote Where Corals Lie, the most popular of his song cycle Sea photos (1894), there was no crisis: its sea, imagined by poets, was a place of romanticism and dark voluptuous enchantment. For the American composer and environmental activist Gabriella Smith (b1991), the imperative is different. She took a pedal boat to the reefs of French Polynesia and used a hydrophone to record the underwater world of sound and recreate it to music.
The result is the delicate bedroom piece Anthozoa (2018), strange, sensual, which opened the early evening of the Philharmonia Today’s music concert in a crowded Purcell hall, hosted by the Finnish violinist-conductor Pekka kuusisto, with the members of the orchestra. They also performed the UK premiere of there is nobody, not even the wind by John Luther Adams (b.1953), the father of American environmental composers. This extremely quiet and incredibly slow 2017 half-hour play was inspired by the deserts of northern Mexico.
The concert was a curtain raiser of the second Philharmonicis eco-conscious Human / Nature Series under the baton of their new, and on the evidence so far, exhilarating conductor, Santtu Matias Rouvali. Rouvali and Kuusisto, both Finns, showed their close musical kinship at the UK premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto (2020), a Philharmonia / Southbank Center co-commission. For Dessner (b.1976), who, as a member of the American group The National, moves fluidly between rock and classical and everywhere in between, the impetus of the work was the pilgrimage route to Saint -Jacques-de-Compostelle. This feeling of walking through the same steps, past and present, has surfaced in the concerto, which begins with an urgent crack of the whip and barely stops to catch its breath. Dessner nods to the entire tradition of violin concertos, to stylistic rather than literal echoes: in Vivaldi’s beloved swift fingerwork, or in Mendelssohn’s swift, silvery string crossings (“mottling”).
The work also embraces Kuusisto’s unleashed versatility. Infused with folk as well as classical violin, you see by the way this fascinating performer drops his bow arm, or rests the violin closer to the chest than to the shoulder, that he has no technical inhibitions and play as the music demands. There were also ethereal, wispy moments, which Kuusisto does so well, although the prevailing vibe is unquenchable. It is worth retracing all this concert that opened with a noisy, boiling and colorful work by Silvestre Revueltas, on BBC Sounds. It ended with Stravinsky The Rite of Spring, a work closely associated for the orchestra with Rouvali’s predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. The new team has taken hold of it, in a gripping, at times almost recklessly savage, tale. The sacrificial dance, in which a young girl is brutally put to death, had an icy and heightened resonance.
All companies come and go, but English Touring Opera, in terms of management rather than singers and instrumentalists, is momentarily lost at sea. A quick Google will take you to reports of a serious dispute with the Musicians’ Union (the dismissal of 14 members of the orchestra citing the need for greater diversity). Distraction didn’t help Handel’s new production Amadigi (1715), which opened in Hackney Empire last weekend ahead of a UK tour. Directed by artistic director James Conway, it was so thin and sad it gave Baroque opera a bad name. I urge you to support him for the sake of the quartet of singers – William Towers, Jenny Stafford, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and Harriet Eyley, and the young soloist (a different choice each night, taken from the locality), the Old Street instrument period Band (not the ensemble in dispute) and the conductor, Jonathan Peter Kenny. Fortunately, Handel’s music gets better and better in this “magical” opera as the work unfolds, and it’s worth cherishing.
Venus and Adonis (1683), by Purcell’s almost contemporary, John Blow, was the small-scale choice for the Blackheath Halls Community Opera House. This collaboration between young professional talents – soloists Claire Lees, Harry Thatcher and Rebecca Leggett – and local adults and school children, with students from Trinity Laban, has overcome the frustrations of the past 18 months. Christopher Stark led a lively performance of all. James Hurley’s hectic production of pink and gold game shows, with Cupid as the host, kept everyone busy. Don’t ask me to explain exactly what was going on, but it was fiery and fun. And there was always a bunch of lovely little Cupids on hand just when you needed them.
Ratings (out of five)
Today’s music ??
Rouvali Philharmonic Orchestra ??
Venus and Adonis ??