Mussorgsky (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov)
A Night on the Bare Mountain
George Benjamin Dance Figures
Ravel Piano Concerto For the Left Hand
Debussy La Mer
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Sir George Benjamin conductor
Tamara Stefanovich piano
£5 under 25s tickets in association with Classic FM at Symphony Hall, Birmingham.
What do you get when you cross no holds barred teenage energy and musical brilliance with some seriously sensational music?
A totally dazzling concert performed by the world’s greatest orchestra of teenagers, that’s what. Throw in a bit of magic in the form of legendary conductor and composer George Benjamin and pianist extraordinaire Tamara Stefanovich and you’re looking at a spectacularly good night out.
You’ll begin the evening at altitude. With a wild wind whistling in your ears, you'll watch a coven of witches at a terrifying, hedonistic dance party in Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (one of the BBC's Ten Pieces).
Taking the scenic route, you’ll experience the eerily mysterious, cinematic soundscape of Ligeti’s modern classic Lontano (so chillingly spooky that Stanley Kubrick used it in the soundtrack of The Shining), the jazzy exuberance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and George Benjamin’s vibrant, attention-grabbing Dance Figures. Your adventure ends down at sea level with the waves crashing against the shore in Debussy’s La Mer.
Totally teenage orchestral brilliance.
Come and hear it.
Snape Maltings Concert HallBox Office 01728 687 110
£6.50 - £33
Symphony Hall, BirminghamBox Office 0121 780 3333
£12.50 - £28 / £5 under 25s
Royal Albert Hall, LondonBox Office 020 7589 8212
£7.50 - £41
Discover the stories behind the music, relax with your friends and meet NYO musicians over snacks at this event for teenagers before the concert.
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
BBC Proms, London
What connects the pieces in a concert programme? Sometimes the promoter will tell you; other times it’s left to your imagination. And there are no right answers. One could regard tonight’s repertoire as a kind of orchestral Genesis: in which constituent parts of human life are formed. Mussorgsky’s depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath conjures our sense of morality (or lack of it). Evoked in Benjamin’s Dance Figures might be our vitality, the body’s impulse to act. Ravel’s concerto builds glittering skyscrapers in sound: the world in which we choose to live. Ligeti, by his own admission, sets out to evoke our dreams, and Debussy of course awakens nature: the world we too readily take for granted. Let’s not get too tied down by this thesis, yet remember that music – even at its most abstract – always has something to say to our souls.
We start with a spinning string figure repeatedly chasing after itself, seeming to ignite shrill woodwind trills and declamatory brass. It’s a statement of intent – not just for the technical dexterity and dramatic chops of Britain’s finest young musicians – but for the concert itself. Time and again this evening, we will witness a veritable orchestral bonfire lit by mere kindling: this is not a concert of epic melody, but tiny melodic fragments that urgently mutate, inciting a blaze. The instant frisson in those opening strings comes from restlessly flitting between two adjacent notes: this constant, chromatic zig-zagging continues throughout, and whole phrases are often repeated one note higher too, cranking up the tension.
Like many 19th century composers, Mussorgsky was fascinated by music’s power to depict something visual. Surely inspired by the incendiary Witches’ Sabbath in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, he wanted to paint his own. Despite multiple stabs, he was never satisfied, and it was friend Rimsky-Korsakov who – five years after his death – fused numerous drafts into the account we largely hear today.
After the initial deluge, a sparky bassoon figure quickly leaps like wildfire across the orchestra. It has echoes of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King and Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or would do, had Mussorgsky’s first draft not preceded both. It also preceded Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and, like both the latter works, has a moment when the maelstrom subsides, signifying dawn: conjured here with a tolling church bell.
Programme notes by James Murphy.
Did you know?
Amid the explosions of Mussorgsky, Ravel and Debussy, the transparency of two short works by George Benjamin and Ligeti resonates all the more. Benjamin’s music has always been distinguished by its remarkable economy: creating no less potent an effect through sparing, delicate combinations of instruments, never overloading his canvas with too many layers. It’s a welcome gear change for the National Youth Orchestra who, despite the splendour of their vast forces, are often at their most devastatingly effective when playing pianissimo.
Benjamin was taught by the French composer Olivier Messiaen whose own works fashion magnitudes from modest motifs and gestures. Messiaen in turn was taught by Dukas, but George’s music is perhaps more redolent of the French impressionists Debussy and Ravel whose work he has programmed alongside his own tonight. Dance Figures is furtive and intimate alongside their extravagance, yet they all have a crisp textural clarity, no matter how many instruments are playing.
These nine ‘choreographic scenes’ were written for both the ballet stage and the concert hall. In the latter, individual players themselves almost become the dancers, tentatively wending and weaving together. Only briefly does the whole ensemble ever crowd the dance-floor. Despite tantalising names for each scene, the work is purely abstract: and yet, staged with actual dancers, it must compel many thoughts about both the alluring power and frustrating limits of being human, passive one moment, domineering the next.
The first six scenes play almost without a break, as do the last three, so the piece basically divides into two parts.
1. Spell: a wintry atmosphere is set with high, divided strings seeming to hang frozen in mid-air
2. Recit: an ornate melody comes to life, shared amongst the woodwind, almost evoking the sound of an organ as it unfolds over long, floating notes across the orchestra
3. In the Mirror: one instrument follows another first in plaintive murmurs then sparks of agitation – in each case, those following vertically invert the notation of the first
4. Interruptions: volatile forces awake in a sudden, unsettling upsurge
5. Song: the fire is soothed by a solo viola and muted trumpet, but a restless clarinet and skittering strings stir fresh uncertainty
6. Hammers: the entire orchestra repeatedly shrieks in its highest register, echoing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Amid the downpour, solo violins and piccolos cavort, but the onslaught escalates.
7. Alone: the calm after the storm, with sole voices whispering to each other across the orchestra in their lowest register
8. Olicantus: two bass clarinets and a cluster of cellos assume a wistful dialogue. The title refers to fellow composer Oliver Knussen, for whom George initially wrote this movement as a birthday gift. A sudden thought occurs: might the titular figures all be people…?
9. Whirling: aggressive rhythms catapult us to the finish. Seconds before the ending, there’s a faint echo of the playful piccolos from the sixth scene, only to be silenced by one last lethal blast.
Programme notes by James Murphy.
Here too we begin with a spinning string figure, not that you hardly hear it, buried deep among the double basses. A contrabassoon wades through the ooze like a prehistoric reptile. The opening moments of Ravel’s concerto might be less Genesis and more Darwinian evolution: successively, instruments rise like saplings, or mammals finding their feet, reaching for the skies. Collectively, they assume a colossal resonance, until a new sound – the piano – is born. Its pole-vaulting, somersaulting cadenza might represent the very height of civilisation: humankind’s dexterity, but also the technological marvel of the piano itself which manufacturers had spent decades refining, ready for the likes of Ravel to draw every possibility from.
Amid the fireworks, the piano utters a simple expressive phrase, starting with a gentle upward step. From that atom, so much is formed. When the orchestra re-enters, they too spin gold from it. For all the jazzy brass and rhapsodic swagger of the strings, harmonically Ravel keeps things remarkably sparse: often the only fundament being the kettle drums reaffirming, in musical terms, the resolution from dominant to tonic: in basic terms, repeating the same two notes in succession that anchor the piece in one particular key. This figure recurs later as the basis of a playful march.
It’s funny to be this far into accounting the piece without yet mentioning the piano part is just for one hand. To some extent, this was Ravel’s wish. The idea is not to notice. It was written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm fighting in the First World War. He called upon a number of composers to write pieces that would prove he’d lost none of his virtuosity. Indeed, the concerto offers no concessions: a trapeze act for five fingers. In making it sound like two hands, pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard notes ‘the challenge with this piece is to lie all the time!’
The sense of duplicity may not end with the piano part. The march, when it comes, has an almost childish quality about it – think of that old song about the Teddy Bears’ Picnic – and yet it seems booby-trapped with explosive little stings from the wind, brass and side-drum. Might it be a satirical commentary on war, given Ravel himself also served (as a truck driver) and lost many friends to the atrocity?
Programme notes by James Murphy.
Did you know?
1. From Dawn to Noon on the Sea
2. Play of the Waves
3. Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea
All symphonic music has a sense of voyage: the orchestral forces either being the mighty vessel that propels us along, or the changing scenery we traverse. Nowhere does this feel more literal than in Debussy’s three ‘symphonic sketches’ depicting the sea.
Debussy himself was a voyager in other ways. He was inspired by the lush chromatic harmonies of Richard Wagner, sensing that by sharpening and flattening unexpected notes, you could shift the tonal centre and direction of music, casting it in unexpected ways. He revelled in such lateral navigation, and duly his music rarely seems to march forward but to wend from side to side. The wanderlust in his music was also inspired by what he heard at Paris’ landmark World Fair in 1899: the Javanese gamelan whose five-note pentatonic modes (as opposed to our eight-note scales) quickly began to seep into his own writing. If these give La mer a sense of the Orient, it’s fitting: writing in the mountains, far from the actual sea, Debussy was inspired by a copy of the famous print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, pinned above his desk.
Once again, we start with a repeated figure rising from the lowest strings. First an oboe, then trumpet and cor anglais, representing the first glints of light gilding the morning waters. Aptly, no motif lasts that long, submerged by the next ensuing wave of sound. At the climax of the first movement, a choral-like theme on the horns, sparkling with harps, doesn’t even seem to fulfil its course, capsized by cymbals and the crashing descent of the next wave.
Throughout, there is constant movement in the undertow: either circular motifs rolling over and over themselves or a simpler ebbing back and forth between two adjacent notes. Sometimes Debussy assigns similar figures to two different instruments then sets them off at different speeds, currents diverging. Sometimes, the constant leaning towards the note next door is a way of tugging the music into a new key. The restless tremolo strings and scurrying woodwind of the second movement could be dashing, darting shoals of fish. Here we get a sense of the sea’s depth as instrument soar and nose-dive amid rising celesta bubbles.
In the last movement, the woodwind seemingly represent the breeze, with each chromatic phrase rousing ever-more agitated eddies in the lower strings: or maybe they are mermaids luring sailors towards the jagged rocks evoked by sudden trombone blasts. We conclude with a spinning string figure repeatedly chasing itself, igniting shrill woodwind trills and declamatory brass which, of course, is more or less where the evening started…
Programme notes by James Murphy.
Did you know?