In concert – Southbank Sinfonia – Journeys Through Worlds (Álvarez, Woolrich, Burell and Glass); Eruptions of Sound and Colour (Simpson and Mozart)

Journeys Through Worlds
Álvarez Metro Chabacano (1986, rev. 1991)
Woolrich Ulysses Awakes (1989)
Burrell Das Meer, das so gross und weit ist, da wimmelt’s ohne zahl, grosse und kleine Tiere (1992)
Glass Symphony no.3 (1995)
Southbank Sinfonia / Owain Park

Eruptions of Sound and Colour
Mark Simpson Geysir (2014)
Mozart Serenade no.10 in B flat major K361 ‘Gran Partita’ (1781-2)
Southbank Sinfonia / Nicholas Daniel

St John’s, Smith Square, London
Thursday 19 January 2023 @ 7pm and 9pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A typically diverse programme by Southbank Sinfonia; actually two programmes, each of which lasted just over and hour and offered respective showcases for the strings then woodwind of this enterprising outfit – now into the second season of its St John’s residency.

Journeys Through Worlds featured four works by contemporary composers, opening with the energetic and purposeful intricacy of Javier Álvarez’s Metro Chabacano. Inspired by Mexico City’s busiest subway station, it made for an engaging concert opener and a telling foil to the restraint of John Woolrich’s Ulysses Awakes. Obliquely reworking an aria from the opera by Monteverdi, this brought viola and strings into ruminative if at times sombre accord – Charles Whittaker drawing no mean eloquence from the solo writing. It may have one of the longest-ever titles, but Diana Burrell’s piece (translating as The vast and wide sea, wherein are things swarming innumerable, both great and small animals) brought the most dissonant music – its densely wrought textures needing scrupulous balance for their inner intensity fully to register.

This it received in part owing to attentive conducting from Owain Park, who went on to direct an impressive account of Philip Glass’s Third Symphony. Free from extra- or, for that matter, ‘other’ musical references, this modest work affords something of a neo-classical conception across its four movements – a moderately paced opener duly making way for a scherzo-like interplay of harmonic and pizzicato writing, then the soloistic writing of a fatalistic chaconne finding real contrast with the vigorous ensemble of a short while pointedly conclusive finale.

Eruptions of Sound and Colour, following a suitable interval, featured Southbank Sinfonia’s woodwind in two decidedly contrasted items. Established both as clarinettist and composer, Mark Simpson packed no mean activity into Geysir – its irresistibly upwards progress aptly evoking those Icelandic hot-springs of its title (which was evidently suggested by composer Simon Holt). These emerge out of an anticipatory calm to which the music at length returns, though the closing bars seem anything but tranquil given the activity that went before them.

Nicholas Daniel directed an assured account of this piece, then had prepared that of Mozart’s Gran Partita which followed (the Simpson having been commissioned for such a purpose). Still the finest and most likely longest work for wind ensemble, it also remains the canniest example of ‘functional’ music raised to a level transcending its ostensible purpose. Not least in the way that its orchestration – pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset horns and bassoons joined by four horns and double-bass – suggests possibilities both profound and far-reaching. It was a testament to the excellence of these musicians one never suspected (or would have noticed has this been a radio broadcast) the absence of any ‘guiding hand’ – such was their unanimity in pursuing the felicity and finesse of what ranks among its composer’s greatest achievements.

It proved a memorable way to close an evening of varied and consistently fine music-making. Southbank Sinfonia is returning to its home venue later this month in a Beethoven double-bill then over the coming months for repertoire established and unfamiliar but always worthwhile.

You can read more about the Southbank Sinfonia at their website. Click on the artist names for more on conductors Owain Park and Nicholas Daniel, while for more on the composers click on the names Javier Álvarez, John Woolrich, Diana Burrell, Philip Glass and Mark Simpson

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