In concert – Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at the Barbican


Picture (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Barnabás Kelemen (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 2 March

This typically well-planned BBC Symphony Orchestra concert had a surprise or two in store. Bookending the quartet of works on display were two pieces by Stravinsky – the Agon ballet from 1957 and the Symphony of Psalms.

They provided a good illustration of how Stravinsky changed styles as a composer, and how in spite of that he retained a fascination with older polyphonic styles. Some of the sound worlds in Agon, a set of twelve tableaux for twelve dancers, frequently alighted on melodic figures or chords that felt ‘old’, holding dissonances and deliberately leaving chords unresolved.

Agon is viewed as the work where Stravinsky starts to take his leave from a more obviously tonal approach to composition. In this performance it was lean yet colourful, with excellent solos from leader Stephanie Gonley, mandolin player Nigel Woodhouse, harpist Sioned Williams and Christian Geldsetzer and Richard Alsop, the two BBC SO lead double bass players, who nailed their otherworldly harmonics on each appearance.

The Symphony of Psalms was more obviously outgoing but saved its greatest emotional impact for the quieter music, the closing pages of ‘Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum’ (‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’) from the BBC Symphony Chorus given out with softly oscillating orchestral figures.

Stravinsky uses the lower end of the orchestra in this piece, with no violins or violas, adding extra percussive punch from two pianos – all aspects that Wigglesworth brought forward in a taut performance. Great credit should however go to chorus master Hilary Campbell, who was unfortunately not mentioned in the concert programme. She is clearly popular with the singers, and helped secure that extra degree of accuracy and emotional involvement. One of Stravinsky’s most cinematic scores, it was in this performance a powerful statement of affirmation.

Wigglesworth positioned his own Violin Concerto modestly after the interval – I say modestly as in its five years of existence the piece has already ramped up an impressive number of performances. On this evidence its status is well-deserved, for it is a tightly structured unit of no little tension, the soloist searching for his ultimate melody while the reduced, ‘classical’ orchestra try and find their ultimate tonality.


Soloist Barnabás Kelemen (above) was a macho presence, with a little too much testosterone at times when the violin was surging forward, but he balanced that with some incredibly sensitive playing at the quietest moments of the piece, where the audience strained on his every note. Both melody and tonality were resolved in moments that confirmed Wigglesworth as a composer of impressive style and instinct.

The one dud in the program was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes, seen through the visual projections of Tal Rosner. This was a commission from four American orchestras in Britten’s centenary year 2013, with each interlude was set to the images of the city from which the commission came. For its UK premiere Rosner added a portrait of London to go with the other orchestral excerpt from the opera, the Passacaglia. This was centrally placed, keeping the order in which the scenes appear in the opera.

Although well played by the orchestra, the idea sadly fell flat on several levels. Although Britten spent time in America – and indeed began Peter Grimes there – the work’s roots are so entrenched in Suffolk that to suggest anything other than the Aldeburgh coastline through the music feels completely wrong. Rosner’s constructions were skilled, and had a few fine moments where close-up images of the Golden Gate Bridge rotated in technicolour.

Sunday Morning, with its bright building blocks of orchestral colour, was revealed to be a minimalist precursor of the music of John Adams through the clever constructions of its visuals. However despite Britten’s more universal appeal as a composer these days, Peter Grimes surely belongs wholeheartedly in Suffolk – and any suggestion to the contrary, however well intended, feels wrong.


In concert – Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican

Actress (above) and the London Contemporary Orchestra

Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 10 February 2016

This intriguing collection of musical thought had three aims. The first was to draw on a long-held ambition of Darren Cunningham, to work with an orchestra under his Actress pseudonym, while the second and third celebrated – or rather illustrated – the ‘brutalist’ architecture of the Barbican and the data readings behind the LAGEOS (Laser Geodynamics) satellite. Into all of these blueprints, curated by Boiler Room, were fed the music of Actress – a potent blend of techno, soul and dark electronica that lends itself to classical structures and instruments. In new arrangements and pieces Actress and Hugh Brunt, conductor and co-Artistic Director of the London Contemporary Orchestra, found a meeting point of all these elements, presenting them to the Barbican with video artist Nic Hamilton.

They called the collision Momentum, a banner symbolised by a circular object that initially resembled a giant glitterball but was in fact the spacecraft used in the LAGEOS missions. In practice it rotated at a much slower pace, responding to Cunningham’s beats – if indeed there were beats at all.


There was an air of tension from the start of the performance, with a long period of silence before the music began. Even then it only gradually crept into the consciousness, and with the lights down low a feeling of forced ambience crept over the audience, restful but not relaxed in the way earlier Aphex Twin can work. Slowly Cunningham built through Lagos and Momentum, two new tracks, his set already clearly conceived on a larger scale.

Brunt’s arrangements for a string quartet of violin, viola, cello and double bass were striking, the instruments softly voiced to begin with but using a wide vibrato to make the centre of pitch far less certain. Oliver Coates’ cameo on a detuned cello was darkened by the use of a curious, semi-elliptical bow. The harp sprinkled planetary dust on the strings through the hands of Victoria Lester, while Hamilton’s astronomical backdrop helped create space in the closed environment.

As the audience began to fidget a breaking point was nearly reached, emphatically punctured by the volleys of Galya Beat, kick drums thrown from the pads of Sam Wilson’s machine. From here the music had greater power and caught the attention, the arrangements enhancing the beauty of Ascending, the harp and manipulated piano twinkling at the top of the sonic pile, while Piano Scrapes worked with subtle humour and more imaginative textures through the strings and the clarinet of Harry Cameron Parry.

Elsewhere Actress worked with claustrophobic backdrops, bringing the concrete maze of Hamilton’s Barbican video work to life. The strings provided essential colour to the largely grey backdrop of the thick but rather lush keyboards, themselves ambient but restless as before. The imaginative scoring included the creative use of a plastic bag in the percussion section.

Though it was a relatively small London Contemporary Orchestra on this occasion – much smaller than the forces used for Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood recently – it was used with imagination and flair by Cunningham and Brunt, the resulting music of substance and structure. Rather like the Barbican, in fact – together with a relative lack of pure emotion in the more calculated sections.

It would be great to see Actress flexing his muscles some more in the fascinating area in which he finds himself, bringing forms of music face to face with each other without anything sounding contrived. Future collaborations are surely inevitable; they are greatly anticipated!

Actress played: Lagos, Momentum, Galya Beat, Chaos Rain I-II, Ascending, Piano Scrapes, Surfer’s Hymn, Skygraff (Game Theory), N.E.W., Chasing Numbers, Voodoo, 5 Audio Track I-II, Hubble.

Names of Players:

Actress (electronics), London Contemporary Orchestra – Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello), Dave Brown (double bass), Harry Cameron Penny (clarinet), Sam Wilson (percussion), Katherine Tinker (piano), Victoria Lester (harp)

In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle: Dutilleux centenary

sibelius-5Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Julia Bullock (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle, live from The Barbican Hall, Wednesday 13 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the music?

Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (18 minutes)

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) (1983-85) (25 minutes)

Delage – Quatre poèmes hindous (1912) (11 minutes)

Dutilleux – Métaboles (1965)

Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2 (1912) (17 minutes)

Broadcast link (open in a new window):

About the music


If you are in any way intimated by newer classical music, Henri Dutilleux (above) is an excellent place to start. ‘One of the most aurally sensual programmes you could ever go through’ is how Sir Simon Rattle describes this concert of orchestral works. Doubtless that statement was made with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in mind, and also the music of Henri Dutilleux, the centenary of whose birth falls on 22 January 2016.

Dutilleux continues in a line of French orchestral masters whose music is every bit about the overall sound as it is about the melodies and harmonies within. His mastery of orchestral colour owes a lot to Ravel’s influence, and that of Debussy too – as you will hear in the Violin Concerto L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) and the virtuoso piece for orchestra Métaboles.

The ‘sensual’ description does not apply so readily to Le tombeau de Couperin. The opening Ravel piece is an elegiac suite paying tribute both to his friends who died in World War I and the past generation of French ‘Baroque’ composers, who – Couperin among them – lived and excelled in the 18th century.

Also included are the Quatre poems hindous of Maurice Delage, written just a year after the French composer travelled to India. Delage writes for a much reduced ensemble of just ten instruments to accompany a soprano in four brief but exquisitely realised text responses.

What should I listen out for?

Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin

3:23 – an attractive and slightly reflective Prélude where not a note is wasted. Ravel’s writing for the wind instruments is particularly beautiful, the oboe taking much of the lilting tune.

6:54 – the Forlane­, a dance where Ravel sounds like he’s written the wrong notes – but in fact has written tunes spiced with harmonies that are surprisingly catchy. Again the orchestration is exquisite, whether in the held string chords behind the woodwind tune or the little points of percussion and harp that provide punctuation. There are four more sections that include equally likeable tunes, with the main tune coming back between each one – structured carefully as a French Baroque composer would.

13:01 – the softly scored Menuet, a dance that has its bright colourings but is sorrowful at its heart. It turns darker in its quiet, minor key Trio (14:57), where a shiver of cold where the spectre of the War can clearly be felt. This builds to an anguished climax before the Menuet, now a brighter and more relaxed presence, returns.

18:14 – there is a sense of purpose about the Rigaudon, a brisk dance where Ravel is getting on with things again, in the face of the Menuet’s sorrow. It is a fun quickstep, pausing briefly for a slower middle section with oboe (19:31) before the main material returns, broken off quickly and emphatically at the end.

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams)

28:28 – the violin begins this work on its lowest note, and after a thoughtful beginning becomes animated. The orchestral backdrop is beautifully crafted and carefully shaded. The colours are strongly suggestive of a forest, as is the humid atmosphere.

At 30:59 we hear the cimbalom for the first time as part of the orchestral texture. From 33:00 the tempo is faster, and then from 34:44 there is an upward surge to two bell strokes, which bring in the first interlude – and some agitated thoughts from the violin around 36:30. Now the music is energetic, the violin trading musical thoughts with the woodwind, and often using multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once).

Then, with the mute on, the violin disappears into the distance after 39:00. The cimbalom can be heard again – the second interlude – and then the music becomes nocturnal, and it feels as though we are at the heart of both the forest and the work.

From 41:21 we hear the oboe d’amore, part of an important duet, the two instruments close together while the strings and percussion observe from a distance. The colours here, particularly when strings join around 44:00, are especially beautiful. After a bigger passage with full orchestra, the high strings dazzle at 46:05.

Then at 46:37 the violin can be heard tuning – but this is part of the third interlude, Dutilleux not wanting to relax the intensity of the piece. Sure enough the transition to the final section is seamless, the bells prominent again – and an energetic last movement gets into full swing. Then, as the violins hold a high note, a solemn section of chords is heard, bringing in a coda.

At 52:14 a scratchy sound from the violin and cimbalom, then a big, percussive statement from the orchestra brings the piece to an emphatic end.

Delage – Quatre poems Hindous


1:21:33 – Madras – a sultry flute sets the forest scene before the soprano comes in half a minute later. The music has sensual twists and turns, aided by the flute and cor anglais.

1:24:08 – Lahore – the keen ear of the composer for new sounds can be clearly felt here, the cello pizzicato and accompaniment seemingly from another world as they depict the ‘lone tree in the north’. This song – the most substantial of the four – ends with an exotic vocalise from the singer (music but no words).

1:29:03 – Bénarès – the cor anglais is prominent in the accompaniment here, and light percussive effects from the harp and strings vividly set the scene. The coming of Buddha on earth is announced by the excited singer.

1:30:39 – Jeypur – the flute is prominent in setting the scene, before the questioning vocal takes over. The instrumentation is relatively rich but again the flute has the final say.


Rattle describes this as the most perfect ‘bonzai’ concerto for orchestra. There are four movements, and each shows the different parts of the orchestra one by one, bringing them together at the end.

1:40:08 – sometimes with a contemporary composer you can tell just from the first chord what they are about. Métaboles is one such example, with a chord of extraordinary colours starting the first section, a fluid tour de force for the wind players. At around 1:43:30 the strings are much more in evidence, a velvety texture used. A high cello solo emerges from the mist.

1:46:38 – a lower clarinet starts off a new section where the music is quicker and lighter, aided by string plucking and carefully placed percussion.

Then with the full orchestra Dutilleux builds up a huge wall of sound to the finish. The audience reaction suggests this piece is well on the way to becoming one of the most popular in recent times.

RavelDaphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2

This is a shorter suite from the ballet, which lasts around an hour.

1:59:28 – surely one of the most wonderful evocations of dawn in all music. Ravel’s wonderfully mysterious tableau starts by murmuring in the lower reaches of the sky until, with calls from flute and oboe, the sun reveals its glorious light at 2:00:26. The rest of the movement continues with a sense of wonder at the new day until a massive climax at 2:04:06, the metallic glint at the very top of the sound courtesy of the triangle.