City Halls, Glasgow
Finding a truly unique voice among living composers is not a guaranteed occurrence, but that’s what SCO audiences were treated to last week in the UK premiere performances of a new Viola Concerto by the Canadian-born, UK-based Cassandra Miller.
It was unique enough, in that concertos for this instrument are – and have been throughout its occasionally maligned history – a testing challenge. But what of the fascinating novelty of the music itself, a language and style governed by adventurous free-thinking and explorative self-confidence, that was so completely original and absorbing.
“I cannot love without trembling” – a title borrowed from the writings of the early 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil – was written for, and performed by, the exceptional Lawrence Power, whose musical persona was as much the impulse as the vehicle of its success. He lives up to his name, but more than that, Power extracts a purity of tone from his instrument – no doubt a very good one – across the full range of its possibilities, possibly even beyond.
Take the fingered harmonics that lend the opening its ethereal intensity, piercing through a gathering underscore; or the gauche succulence of exaggerated vibrato and trembling oscillations that, in sultry interaction with the orchestra, spiral up to the highest reaches of the fingerboard. Throughout the work’s five sections, which blossom with expressive intensity despite Miller’s deliberate compositional containment, Power’s free-flowing virtuosity was spellbinding.
The concerto, Miller tells us, is “about the basic human need to lament”, its flickering ornamental language drawn from improvised moiroloi compositions by the early 20th century Greek folk violinist Alexis Zoumbas. Both the resulting work and its performance under conductor John Storgårds fully captured a spirit of gnawing ecstasy.
The other fascination in this programme was, itself, a well-worn work, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The obvious question is, why was a chamber orchestra tackling such hefty symphonic repertoire? The answer is, they weren’t, at least not in the form we know it.
Instead, Storgårds introduced us to a reduced chamber orchestra version by conductor/arranger George Morton which may have played havoc with listener expectations – the single wind all-too-often smacked of a lo-fat alternative, not their fault, and the inevitable thinning of textures led to uncomfortable imbalances – but much of which drew focus to aspects of Tchaikovsky often overlooked. The performance, itself, was admirably lithe and perceptive.
More satisfying all round was the opening work, Sibelius’ Suite No 2 extracted from his incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Here was a sequence of scene-setters and character sketches richly portrayed by a composer prepared to enrich a theatrically-prescribed musical response with his own enigmatic, sharp-edged personality. Storgårds’ casual authority ensured an illuminative performance.