In concert – Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra / Olivia Clarke: Music of Today: Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner
The Forest, Sederunt Principes (2019) (UK premiere)
Lachrimae (2012) (UK premiere)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra / Olivia Clarke

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 2 February 2023

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Olivia Clarke picture (c) Rebecca Nead Menear

Bryce Dessner is surely the only composer able to list Taylor Swift, Paul Simon and the Philharmonia Orchestra among their musical accomplices. It is this multi-disciplined CV that makes him an excellent choice as Artist-in-Residence at the Southbank Centre – and this instalment of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s early evening Music of Today series allowed a look at his writing for string ensemble.

As well as namechecking the above artists, rock guitarist Dessner has a number of musical projects currently coming to the boil. His band The National (where his twin brother Aaron also plays) stand on the verge of their 9th album, prefaced by elegant single Tropic Morning News just over two weeks prior.

Meanwhile his string arrangements for the Malmö Symphony Orchestra help encapsulate the musical wonder of Complete Mountain Almanac, a project fronted by his sister Jessica and singer Rebekka Karijord. Their self-titled album, released in late January, has a folk-inflected beauty.

Dessner’s composition work also continues apace, and as this concert illustrated he is amassing an impressive and durable body of work. The Forest, for seven cellos, is not a nature poem as its title might suggest. Rather, it refers to the forest-like interiors of Notre Dame cathedral, all but destroyed in the dreadful fire of 2019. Dessner was in Paris at the time, and was moved to write a musical response. He considered the wood lost in the flames, pondering the sounds it would have absorbed through the ages, going back as far as Perotin’s 12th century motet Sederunt principes.

Taking this as his stimulus, Dessner weaves old and new together with a seamless join, the deeply historical source material given fresh if solemn context. The composer chooses not to use the swell of the cello sound too often, steering clear of cliches often found in writing for this instrumental combination. Instead the sounds are more subtle, the cellos often applying the wood of the bow to the string, decorating the sound and giving it acoustic context. In this way they present an absorbing collage of sounds, meditating on the lost material while projecting well beyond the size of the Purcell Room to evoke the vastness of the cathedral. Olivia Clarke (above) kept a firm hand on proceedings in what was a fine performance.

Lachrimae, as its title suggests, also looks to the distant past for inspiration. The source material here is John Dowland’s song of the same name, expanded by Dessner into a piece for a 12-piece string ensemble that also draws on Bartók’s Divertimento for strings. The piece starts by quoting its source material, but quickly projects it on to a wider musical canvas. In this performance there were pre-echoes of Dessner’s soundtrack for The Revenant three years later, these being colder textures with an equally compelling group of musical ideas.

Michael Fuller’s double bass was a central component of the more expansive writing, and the lower notes were played as though freshly dug from the ground itself. Meanwhile the upper strings traded motifs of power and poise, building energy and momentum impressively and inexorably – until suddenly all was still. The cold haze of a winter morning could be glimpsed in the mind’s eye, and the piece ended in the contemplative mood with which it began.

Olivia Clarke conducted another excellent, concentrated performance, aided by the forthright leadership of cellist Karen Stephenson. It may have been a short encounter, but this was a concert affirming Dessner as a composer whose progress should be closely monitored, fully justifying Steve Reich’s billing as ‘a major voice of his generation’.

You can watch a previous performance of The Forest on Facebook here:

For more information, visit the Bryce Dessner website – and for more on the Philharmonia’s free concert series Music of Today, visit their dedicated page

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