BBC SSO / Volkov
City Halls, Glasgow
If anything marks the BBC SSO out as distinctive in Scotland – and there have to be certain benefits to that in a climate where strangulation of the arts is an existential threat – it is surely its commitment to the most challenging outposts of contemporary music. No other orchestra would or could place such unapologetic emphasis on it, let alone take the commercial risk.
Thursday’s programme was specifically designed, and recorded, for BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show, yet it was also a weirdly entertaining revelation for a sizeable audience curious to discover who composers Stefan Prins and Øyvind Torvund were, and how a concerto for electric guitar and a reworking of 1950s pop “exotica” might brighten up a drizzly Glasgow evening.
It probably wouldn’t have done so without SSO principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, whose track record in exploring and communicating the wilder horizons of the contemporary landscape is second to none. With a few words of welcome, and an invitation to enter a psychedelic twilight zone, madcap ideas were transformed into stimulating sonic experiences.
Both performances were UK premieres, and both were delivered with utter commitment and consummate skill, right down to violinists bowing over aluminium foil-clad fingerboards in Prins’ 2021 concerto, under_current, or the simultaneous virtuoso whistling that cast an anarchic, playful mystique over the opening of Torvund’s The Exotica Album.
Such were the bracing novelties of these substantial works. The visual power of under_current was awesome, electric guitarist Yaron Deutsch using his instrument more as a generator of effects facilitated by the pedals, cables and signal processing units surrounding him, and the totemic presence of a towering thunder machine centrally positioned behind the large orchestra.
There wasn’t a melody, hardly even a motif, in sight. With guttural explosions from the guitar, wailing responses from the orchestra, Prins’ 40-minute work consciously defies conventionality, perhaps over too long a time scale. But so visceral and purposeful was the playing that Deutsch silenced the audience during the final applause to say this was the best orchestra he’d ever played with. It was a tough gig for all of us, but Volkov’s self-belief turned this seeming jumble of nuts and bolts into something organically akin to a kinetic sculpture.
Where Prins’ music is uncompromising, Torvund’s The Exotica Album (Sinfonietta with modular synthesiser and saxophone) is a triumph of exaggerated nostalgic indulgence. Taking its lead from the origins of late-1950s “exotica” – Martin Denny’s album Quiet Village – Torvund sharpens the concept of seriousness versus kitsch to such the point it transmits as the musical equivalent of an LSD trip.
Set in ten short movements – with titles like Starry Night, Wind up Paradise Birds, Rainbow Crystal and Jungle Alarm – the overriding sensation was one of escapism, where soaring Hollywood-style strings vied with synthesised birds and frenetic electronic bloops, courtesy of Jørgen Træn on “modular synthesiser and noise”, and the pungent, provocative sax of Kjetil Møster.
It was enormously pleasant to listen to, those whistlers in the opening Ritual 1 initiating a prophetic sense of the surreal, later moments where you might imagine noted bird-enthusiast Messiaen encountering the Clangers, the occasional confectionary spillover into wacky cartoon land, the sassy honking polyphony of Jungle Alarm, but altogether a feast of titillating excess that proved the perfect complement to the earlier concerto, and transformed a journey into the unknown into an invigorating night of discovery.
Recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3’s New Music Show, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds.