Tag Archives: David Fennessy

BBC SSO: Conquest of the Useless

City Halls, Glasgow 

It started with a blood-curdling chord that shattered the expectant silence. This was the opening of David Fennessy’s epic Conquest of the Useless, a dynamic 70-minute concert trilogy inspired by both Werner Herzog’s eccentric 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, and the process by which it was filmed as seen through American filmmaker Les Blank’s vivid documentary Burden of Dreams.

That the chord reeked of Verdi was no accident. Fitzcarraldo, played in the film by the volatile Klaus Kinski, is an opera-crazed obsessive (based on the real-life Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald) driven to construct an opera house in the Peruvian jungle, in the course of which he decides to haul a 320-ton steamship overland from one Amazonian river system to another. Caruso was his hero, whose recorded voice – singing bits of Rigoletto – feeds like a ghostly cipher through Fennessy’s opulent score.

Yet, as this first UK performance of the complete trilogy firmly demonstrated, Conquest of the Useless bears its own distinctive hallmark. Fennessy was fortunate to have the BBC SSO under Jack Sheen as the prime protagonists in delivering a work powered by individual thought and further animated by electronics (Fennessy on guitars along with computer performer Peter Dowling), Scots actor Brian Ferguson and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston. Caruso, himself, was symbolically represented by an old gramophone sited high in the choir stalls, spotlit, like a sacred altar.

Uppermost in Saturday’s performance was the driving intensity with which Fennessy expresses his fascination for Herzog’s iconic film in purely musical terms. The Verdi quotes – and others such as the poignant Bach chorale, Es ist genug, used by Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto – conjure up a deep-seated nostalgia, interwoven with the Glasgow-based composer’s edgy modernity to enshrine Fitzcarraldo’s unshakable obsessiveness.

Fennessy has lived with the creation of this music for much of the last decade. The Prologue dates back to 2013, performed then also by the SSO. In the context now of the two ensuing works – Caruso and “Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the moon” – its organic function is cemented. Sheen allowed the natural conflict between its Verdian pungency and exotic jungle shimmer (a sonic forest of guiros) to generate its own febrile electricity, harnessed by a magnificent slow-moving glissando that seemed to take forever to ascend from its subterranean origin.

It was the perfect set up for Caruso, nor was it long before another monumental crescendo paved the way for Fennessy’s evocative electric guitar, emerging as the voice of free expression, sometimes boldly improvisatory, sometimes intensely reflective. 

It was in the final work, however, that we encountered the most persuasively visionary and dramatic music. A perambulating Brian Ferguson (using a stepladder to cross between balcony and stage level) recited words from Herzog’s diaries, some of them frustratingly overwhelmed by volcanic orchestral surges. Enter, too, Jennifer Johnston, whose translucent vocal purity added a magical, if transient, angelic descant. For in the end, it is the inventiveness of Fennessy’s orchestral writing – unrestrained by stylistic dogma – that seals the deal. 

This kaleidoscopic summation, an unfettered Amazonian soundtrack, bears out the composer’s stated belief that the orchestra in Conquest of the Useless is “the embodiment of what could be the true central character of this whole trilogy – the jungle itself.”

Going by the screening of Les Blank’s documentary which, together with an ensuing panel discussion, prefaced this energising performance, Herzog may well have come to the same conclusion.

Ken Walton

Glasgow Cathedral Festival

Artistic Director Andrew Forbes and his small team achieve a minor miracle each year with their long weekend of diverse and often bold and experimental music in the superb environment of Glasgow Cathedral. Saturday evening’s programme was a good indicator of that range, and the unique atmosphere the building provides.

Cellist William Conway’s Hebrides Ensemble brought a programme that was diverse in itself, beginning with a quartet by Mozart and ending with a work for the same forces by Krzysztof Penderecki – the Polish composer to whose memory Sir James MacMillan has dedicated his new violin concerto.

Although Conway himself played in all but one of the five works, much of the focus in the recital was on Yann Ghiro and Scott Dickinson, principal clarinet and principal viola in the BBC SSO, with violinist David Alberman the other member of this edition of the versatile group.

Mozart’s Adagio for Basset Horn and String Trio might only have become such in the hands of German musicologist Ernst Lewicki, but its melodic material is familiar from the composer’s repurposing of it and the lead instrument is one for which he had a demonstrable enthusiasm.

Penderecki’s Quartet exploits the similar tonal range of the clarinet and viola in its opening and closing movements as the cello and violin add single note “drones” to the sound. The clarinet is also to the fore in the sprightly and slightly bluesy Scherzo; only in the third movement Serenade is there a more democratic share of the lead line.

The other curiosity by a big name was Leonard Bernstein’s Variations on an Octatonic scale, five bite-sized miniatures that fuelled his Concerto for Orchestra. They were performed here by Conway and Ghiro, and the fourth, with its staccato clarinet and pizzicato cello was a particular delight.

The programme was completed by two newer works from composers living or working in Scotland, David Fennessy and Helen Grime. Almost the definition of minimalism and restraint, with much use of harmonics, Fennessy’s Changeless And The Changed is a duo for violin and cello that takes a single musical idea, botanical in inspiration, and explores it thoroughly. To See The Summer Sky, by Grime, pairs violin and viola with the lower instrument often taking the lead, especially in the faster sections of the score.

If the Hebrides’ package presented an opportunity to hear music that rarely has an outing, the event that followed was a one-off delight. De Profundis: A Tribute to Scottish Miners began life at the East Neuk Festival five years ago, performed in smoky half-light in The Bowhouse, the former agricultural building that has become the festival’s main large venue.

This revisiting of the work by John Wallace, his professional brass-playing colleagues in The Wallace Collection, and Tony George, the tuba-playing director of the Tullis Russell Band who is now working with The Cooperation Band, also involved Renfrew Burgh Band. The massed brass also included, unbilled, a few players from Fife who simply wanted to be involved again and were prepared to travel to do so.

If the pit-invoking haze was less dense this time, the lighting and use of the building was twice as spectacular. The score Wallace has created, mining material from settings of Psalm 130, Out Of The Deep, ranges from classic brass band sound to choral polyphony, constantly in flux and with the glorious punctuation of a virtuosic trumpet solo from on high and a robust percussion interlude. From the quire of the cathedral, Brenda Craig recited the four poems that are part of the piece, one of them miner/writer Joe Corrie’s The Image o’ God.

Word had clearly got out that this was a spectacular not to be missed and the Cathedral Festival team were rewarded by a very good attendance for an occasion that will live long in the memory.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Hebrides Ensemble by David Lee

RSNO / Sondergard

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

While it is probably unlikely to provoke a popular uprising on the streets of the second city of the empire when Glasgow first hears David Fennessy’s new composition The Riot Act in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall this evening, you would bet that it will go down a storm, judging by the reception in less revolutionary-minded Edinburgh on Friday night.

Fennessy’s composition, delayed by the pandemic but arguably immaculately timed now, takes its inspiration from the attempt to read that 18th century piece of legislation to the boisterous populace at the “Battle of George Square” in 1919. Commissioned by the RSNO, it came with the gift to any composer of the same huge size of orchestra required to perform Stravinsky’s orchestral concert revision of his ballet music The Rite of Spring, which had famously inspired a “riot” among the audience at its 1913 Paris premiere.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland based composer has taken that opportunity and added to it – his Russian predecessor’s score does not call for four field-sports whistles crying “foul” at the back of the orchestra or a declamatory tenor singing the text at the top of his range at full volume.

Mark Le Brocq, the singer with that brief but challenging job, was rightly cheered to the rafters in the Usher Hall at the end of the six-minute work, as was Fennessy, who packs an extraordinary amount into its brief span, with the percussion section also turned up to 11 and the whole orchestra required to sing at the work’s end. A great deal of mythology surrounds the story of the events in the centre of Glasgow 100 years ago, but it has never had a soundtrack as compelling as this one.

The premiere of the piece ended up preceding the work whose equally myth-garnished first performance provided its forces, in what was a brilliantly-constructed programme. The first half had opened with Stravinsky’s even briefer explosive Fireworks, a dazzling orchestral display from 1908 that clearly set the composer on the path, via The Firebird, to the Rite.

It was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, played with panache, and some swagger, by Stefan Jackiw. The RSNO’s Thomas Sondergard and the American violinist will work together again on the work with the Cleveland Orchestra in November in concerts that pair it with Stravinsky’s Firebird.

The soloist had some recourse to an electronic version of the score here, but it hardly impeded his expressive interpretation of a virtuosic work, whose difficulty is the chief impediment to more performances. That it was predictable that Jackiw would play an encore, and that that would be music by Bach, did not make the pleasure of its inevitable arrival any less.

As for The Rite of Spring itself at the conclusion of the evening, that was the RSNO and Sondergard – who started his musical life as a percussionist – working at peak performance. The last time this hall heard the work was in August’s acclaimed Edinburgh Festival performance by Les Siecles under Francois Xavier-Roth. This was a different beast, more widescreen but fascinating for the way the conductor steered through its linear but episodic structure and the split-second timing of transitions from one section to the next. There were excellent solo turns too, of course from bassoonist David Hubbard in that exposed high-register opening, and also from Henry Clay on cor anglais and timpanist Paul Philbert.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Stefan Jackiw