Proms premiere – Luke Bedford: Instability


Luke Bedford

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena (Prom 20)

Duration: 22 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

Instability can be heard by clicking here

What’s the story behind the piece?

You can look at the music itself courtesy of Luke Bedford’s publisher, Universal Edition, here

In the introduction on the same page, Bedford sets the scene for his new piece. “Ideas in this piece are torn apart by a strange energy and reform in new, dynamic relationships. There is a constant tension between growing and collapsing. That which seems durable can vanish in an instant. The piece will include the Albert Hall organ, a detuned orchestra and possibly the first use of a cricket bat in an orchestral piece.”

Reflecting the world we live in and experience. Was going to be a set of movements but is now in one continuous duration. Cuts between ideas in an unexpected and dramatic way. Some of the orchestra – wind and brass – play a quarter-tone lower.

Did you know?

Initial verdict

As the BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny observes, Instability is a piece that vividly captures the uncertain and often overwhelming times that we live in. It is a very edgy piece indeed!

From the start (35:22 on the link) some quiet murmurings among the orchestra but then a sudden outburst that changes the whole dynamic of the piece. Bedford writes some striking music for the orchestra, a dramatic set of contrasts that perhaps intentionally leaves the listener completely on edge with the huge rumbles of sound. There is not so much melodic, as the big chords are walls of sound, but there is a good deal of pent-up anger released with them it would seem.

The organ is integral to the music, tending towards the upper end for a shrill sound, but cutting through around the 44’ mark with an emphatic blast of C major tonality. After this the piece becomes uncertain and wary again, with some creepy sounds and ominous, held low notes.

I couldn’t hear where the cricket bat comes in but assumed that to be in the percussive section around 41:30, where it feels like a lot of pipes are struck.

From around 48:55 on the link the cellos and violas intone a solemn melody, but the rest of the orchestra seems hell-bent on breaking this up and smothering it. Then the forces bang into each other chaotically before cutting out to near silence. Then what seems to be a coda starts, with another quite solemn and drawn out melody broken up by metallic chords from brass, wind, percussion and high organ.

To me this piece feels like an attempt to live a proper life in a society that is chaotic, uncertain and full of dread. At the end this tension is unresolved.

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

You can watch a portrait of Luke Bedford in this video uploaded to YouTube by the London Sinfonietta:

Under the Surface at the Proms – John Foulds’ Three Mantras

Prom 38, 13 August 2015 – London Symphony Chorus Womens’ Voices, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena at the Royal Albert Hall


John Foulds Three Mantras (1919-1930)

We definitely undervalue the BBC orchestras when the Proms take centre stage. I say that because this was one of the most colourful orchestral Proms it has been my pleasure to witness, and much of the credit for that should go to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, a riot of bright shades under Juanjo Mena in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphony. Yet while that performance will inevitably take centre stage, it was another work that stole the show.

John Foulds has spent a long time languishing in the musical wilderness, but in the last ten years he has begun to reach a bigger audience. A good deal of thanks for this should go to conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, who recorded two discs of his orchestral works with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. They enchanted us with Foulds’ inventiveness, and most importantly his eagerness to incorporate Eastern cultures within an extremely Western art form. In this respect he was in line with Gustav Holst.

One of the finest works in this respect is the 3 Mantras, thought to be part of a massive Sanskrit opera, Avatara. Very sadly that never came to be, and 300 pages are lost from the score, but the 3 Mantras survive and make a very accomplished and unusual orchestral piece. The colours are simply beautiful, achieved through a wide variety of percussion, harps and shimmering strings, all of which Mena marshalled to show the detail of Foulds’ inventive orchestration.

It is the second piece, the Mantra of Bliss (starting at 8:13 on the link above) that is the most striking, a meditation of radiant orchestral beauty, where Foulds uses a wordless female chorus to enchanting effect. Holst had done this before, in Neptune from The Planets, but rather than that cold emptiness Foulds creates exotic warmth.

The outer two mantras are very different; the first a bustle of activity that slows for a moving slower melody; the third an almost barbaric dance that wheels out of control and wields a fearsome set of percussion at the end. This was a terrific performance from the BBC Philharmonic, showing off Foulds’ gifts to a new audience that will hopefully look to discover more of the music of this remarkable composer.

Want to hear more

You can hear a playlist from BBC Radio 3’s CD Review, where Andrew McGregor explores recordings of John Foulds’ music, by clicking here

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival