BBC SSO: Volkov / Evans

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This was foreign territory for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, decamped from its home at Glasgow’s City Halls to the Royal Concert Hall due to essential repair works at the former, but in this case it was a helpful move. For there was much in this curious journey into the hinterland of late-20th/21st century American music  – neatly packaged as “States of America” – that could have done serious damage to our ear drums in the smaller City Halls.

It wasn’t so much the loudness of the music – in fact much of it was intensely suppressed in volume – as the unrelenting obsessiveness contained in these four works by Courtney Bryan, Talib Rasul Hakim, Eleanor Hovda and Lucia Dlugoszewski. Two of them – Bryan’s White Gleam of our Bright Star and Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress – were UK premieres.

Needless to say, this was devised and conducted by Ilan Volkov, whose unquenchable thirst for difficult, offbeat contemporary scores has long made Glasgow concert-going the adventure into the unknown it so often is. Once again, he communicated his astute and precise understanding of complex ideas to the obliging SSO, whose realisation of the seemingly impossible was, at times, mind-blowing.

Bryan’s short opener, commissioned by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic in 2016, was relatively easy listening. The density of its colours, shaded with a ghostly fragility, reflects the composer’s preoccupations with “themes of sister/brotherhood, freedom and equality”, heightened by an excessive climax whose dissonance seems to shatter the cosiness of the traditional American big band sound, which it alludes to, and from which softer questioning emerges, still tainted by mildly troubling contradictions.

Hakim’s Visons of Ishawara dates back half a century, and boy does it smack of the grim aesthetic of the 1970s. From the very outset it’s as if we’re thrown into the furious melodrama of a period TV horror soundtrack: the ritualistic pounding of the bass drum; the lugubrious idealism of the wilting flute melody; a febrile hyperactive narrative that tries too hard to keep up with the action. It will have been a trip down memory lane for listeners of a certain vintage, trip being the operative word

If there was promise of calm to follow in the hushed tones of Hovda’s Fields 87, its dynamic and timbral containment ultimately led to an uncomfortable sense of sensory asphyxiation. Operating at a micro level, its journey is an almost imperceptible metamorphosis that, despite one momentary outburst, remains stifling to the end. Nonetheless, the SSO furnished it with the utmost sensitivity.

The single post-interval work provided a much-needed release: Dlugoszewski’s 1975 Abyss and Cares for trumpet and orchestra, which is frankly barmy. Not once does its frenzied tempo let up, nor does its crazed language – superhuman trumpet techniques allied to weird string effects and wind players that double on swanee whistles – offer a moment of conventional respite.

It was superbly performed, the astounding New York trumpeter Peter Evans negotiating Dlugoszewski’s boundless demands with uncanny proficiency, from whispered stratospheric heights to guttural grunts and snorts, and all at twice the speed of sound. Volkov instilled an unrelenting volatility in a performance that could so easily have been the soundtrack to a crazed convention of cartoon heroes. 

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds