In concert – James Ehnes, CBSO / Finnegan Downie Dear: Cassandra Miller, Britten & Beethoven

©Frank-Bloedhorn-finnegan-downie-dear

Miller La Donna (2021) [UK premiere]
Britten
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.15 (1938-9)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1807-08)

James Ehnes (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Finnegan Downie Dear (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; Picture of Frankie Downie Dear (c) Frank Bloedhorn

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a first appearance with British conductor Finnegan Downie Dear, winner of the 2020 Mahler Competition in Bamberg, and a first hearing in the UK for an orchestral piece by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller.

Currently based in London, where she is Professor of Composition at the Guildhall, Miller’s output has often drawn on pre-existing sources as are then integrated into the work at hand. Such is the case with La Donna, premiered at Barcelona earlier this year, where a group of Genoese male voices singing La Partenza da Parigi (as recorded by the redoubtable Alan Lomax in 1954) is channelled into music of intensive polyphonic activity and topped by a falsetto melodic line – the eponymous La donna. This builds to an apex as intricate in its texture as it is immediate in expression, then gradually subsides in a resonance of suffused elation. Such was the impression left by this performance, Downie Dear drawing sustained amplitude from relatively modest forces in a visceral demonstration of tension and release.

A time there was when Britten’s Violin Concerto enjoyed only a modest presence in British concert halls, though recent years have seen it taken up by leading soloists from around the world. Its edgy yet intense lyricism has a persuasive exponent in James Ehnes (above), who brought out the restless emotion of the initial Moderato – the five-note motto underlining the context of war and unrest from which it emerged. The Vivace’s rhythmic velocity and sardonic tone were no less evident, a tensile reading of the cadenza pointing up its thematic function and leading inevitably into the final Passacaglia. After a superbly shaped orchestral introduction, Ehnes characterized its variations with mounting intensity to a powerfully wrought climax – the final pages exuding a fatalistic eloquence no less affecting now than eight decades ago.

Perhaps this music’s rapt equivocation explains why it has often been programmed in recent seasons with Beethoven’s Pastoral. While by no means revelatory, the present account gave a good indication of Downie Dear’s abilities – not least his emphasis on rhythmic articulation during what was a relatively swift traversal of the opening Allegro, along with his fastidious attention to dynamics as brought the requisite focus and lucidity to the Scene by the Brook with its warmly enveloping string textures and its bird-calls deftly inflected towards the close.

The final three movements unfolded in much the same vein – the peasants lithe if arguably a little too well-behaved in their merrymaking and the thunderstorm forceful if not electrifying in response, though with a seamless diminuendo of volume and energy going into the finale. Without drawing the ultimate gravitas from its interplay of rondo and variation procedures, Downie Dear guided it surely and attentively to a ruminative coda – Beethoven transcending the incipient era of musical romanticism through the (deliberate) absence of any defining ego.

This evening’s programme is repeated tomorrow afternoon – with the Miller being replaced by Mozart’s Idomeneo overture – while the CBSO returns next week for Rossini, Berlioz, and Prokofiev under François Leleux, along with Baiba Skride in Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Cassandra Miller, click here – and for more information on Finnegan Downie Dear, head to the conductor’s website

BBC SSO / Ilan Volkov – Miller, Sciarrino, Croft & Beethoven ‘Eroica’

Ilya Gringolts (violin), Juliet Fraser (soprano), Sound Intermedia (Ian Dearden and David Sheppard, sound design), BBC Scottish Symphony OrchestraIlan Volkov (above, picture James Mollison)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Friday 17 November 2017

Miller Round (2016)

Sciarrino Allegoria della notte (1985)

Croft Lost Songs (2017) [World premiere]

Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, ‘Eroica’ (1804)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Symphony Hall concert was hardly likely to muster a large audience, though those braving inclement weather and the chaos of redevelopment in the Centenary Square environs were rewarded with this strikingly contrasted programme from the BBC Scottish Symphony.

The first half consisted wholly of music by living composers. Canadian-born Cassandra Miller (b1976) may not yet be widely recognized in the UK, but Round demonstrated a sure feeling for orchestral sonority – drawing on a lesser known Tchaikovsky melody (rendered by cellist Gaspar Cassadó) as a ‘cantus firmus’ around which the texture gradually opens-out; taking in antiphonal trumpets and off-stage tubular bells, while maintaining its hushed aura through to the rapturous culmination. Ilan Volkov secured a committed response in this absorbing piece.

Such was no less true in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Allegoria della notte, yet the work itself was a disappointment. Sciarrino (b1947) has a knack for finding the ‘biting point’ between sardonic and ominous, but this homage to and deconstruction of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (near-quotations from which inform the opening and close) was for the most part an exercise in his trademark glassy textures and frozen gestures. Ilya Gringolts handled some stratospheric solo writing with aplomb, but this remained music appreciably longer on technique than substance.

A pity that the orchestra’s absence from the next piece prompted an exodus from the hall in expectation of an interval (though the programme could have been clearer on this), as many failed to return for the highlight of this contemporary triptych. New Zealand-born John Croft (b1971) is a further composer gaining in profile, and Lost Songs should do his reputation no harm at all. These settings of ancient Greek poets (three by Sappho, two by Alcaeus and one anonymous) for solo voice conjured a remote though never arid or uninvolving sound-world, enhanced by the evocation of lyres and reed instruments through the adept manipulation of live electronics – against which Juliet Fraser was a focal-point of eloquent poise. If any ‘note of reconciliation’ rather failed to emerge, this remained an assured and involving experience.

Was a point being made by the introspection of this first half when compared to the combative presence of Beethoven’s Eroica after the interval? Such thoughts came readily to mind during Volkov’s impressive account of a work as wears its two centuries and more lightly, not least in an opening Allegro (exposition repeat excluded) that unfolded intently yet never hectically via a far-reaching development and on to a coda that brought tangible fulfilment. The Adagio then marshalled its funereal essence with equal purpose, building to an anguished fugato and finally subsiding into a numbed acceptance – countered in the scherzo with its incisive energy and its trio’s horn-led jollity. The finale’s initial stages were ideally paced, and if the broader tempo of what ensued risked momentum, the coda duly surged forth with uninhibited resolve.

Overall, a fine showing for Volkov and BBCSSO alike. Were they to give a first UK hearing for Jorge E. López’s seismic Fourth Symphony (as premiered by Volkov in Luxembourg late last year), this would be worth braving the elements and urban redevelopment alike to attend.

For more information on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, head to their website, and for Ilan Volkov, his artist website