Performance of Mystical Dances at The Sage Gateshead on 1 August 2007

August is the month when Bolivia celebrates its anniversary on the 6th and when my patron saint is remembered on the 28th. This year, Newcastle University is making me a professor, and the appointment is effective from 1 August. In a separate development, Northern Sinfonia scheduled for this date its second performance of Mystical Dances at Hall One in The Sage Gateshead. Usually, for reasons I’ll never know, when there is a convergence of good things this happens in May (often the 23rd) or in November. And yet this year the pattern is breaking and August is emerging as an intriguingly eventful time of the year. But I’m not here to discuss astrology.

The performance was conducted by the very young and very talented Alexander Shelley, who gave a spirited rendition with plenty of character and verve. He controlled the orchestra with an authority that belies his youth, and he showed that he had taken the time to think and understand the expressive intentions of the piece. The orchestra responded very well, and the commitment of their performance was as visible as it was audible. I know that there was a receptive audience listening and, in a large proportion, understanding. Even though I can’t explain how this happens, I know this, in the same way as I know when the opposite happens and the music falls flat, which luckily wasn’t the case last night.

The auditorium was, of course, one of the factors of success. Hall One has a remarkable clarity of sound which enables you to follow the orchestral flow like a film on a panoramic screen. Everything was there, clearly exposed, provided you had enough time to listen to it. The fact that the orchestra had done the piece before was another factor, as familiarity lent an added confidence. For some of the players, however, this familiarity may have been a hindrance rather than a help when tackling the revised version; surprises may have sprung up with irksome frequency, especially in the last movement where the old material is now treated very differently. And yet there was no sign of irritation at the rehearsals, and certainly not at the concert when the orchestra shone with flair and wholeheartedness.

I had fretted a little about how Mystical Dances would sit in a programme surrounded by such popular classics as El amor brujo and Concierto de Aranjuez. In the event the decision was vindicated and I had to admit to the programming director, Simon Clugston, that I had been wrong to fret. Falla is, of course, an important influence from my earliest composing years, and although Rodrigo has never excited me much, his simplicity of means seems now a worthy reference point.

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