Live Reviews: Horizons: Stephen Gardner

National Symphony Orchestra William Eddins, conductor National Concert Hall, Dublin 28th January 2003

National Symphony Orchestra
William Eddins, conductor
National Concert Hall, Dublin
28th January 2003

Horizons 2 – Featured Composer: Stephen Gardner
Adams – Lollapalooza
Gardner – Wanting, Not Wanting
Lindberg – Cantigas
Gardner – Wallop

I have a suspicion (and I’m probably wrong) that there was a degree of cunning and subversion in Gardner’s selection of Adams and Lindberg as counterpoints to his own work. I say this because both pieces, by virtue of their respective faults, placed Gardner’s output in high relief, and where they failed Gardner succeeded. Overall, the selection here belongs to that field of post-minimalist contemporary music whose vocabulary consists of familiar romantic modes of communication. The individual methods may differ, but they all share a passion for emotive dynamics and rich detailed orchestration. It’s extremely listenable, think Holst rather then Boulez, and all three composers want to reach forward and include you in their world. There seems to be an increasing need for such music, a popularity evidenced by the high sales of Adams or Pärt as opposed to Lachenmann or Babbitt, and yet I believe that this approach can all too easily defeat itself. Too often this music with its grand statements, intricate orchestration and momentous metaphors can appear to rely on tried and tested modes of communication.

A classic example of this was Magnus Lindberg’s Cantigas. There is no doubt that this man can create the most incredible and intricate maze of sounds with the orchestra. Dark clouds appear over the horizon and one is tossed into a sea of thick colours, no sooner does some redeeming light appear then one is thrown backwards into yet another wave. Yet look inside this mesh and for all its glorious orchestration there appears to be nothing at its core. There are so many opportunities missed, fantastic moments to grab onto and explore, yet Lindberg lets them drop and moves on to amaze you with yet more of his predictably intricate passages. This ‘flaw’ became more apparent towards the end, and I was struck by how many exceptional possible endings were left in Cantigas’ wake, leaving me with the distinct impression that Lindberg had mistaken fine orchestration for content and had written a piece that little bit too long.

The concerts opening piece was written by John Adams as a fortieth birthday present for Simon Rattle. In general, John Adams’ works consist of stunning orchestration combined with stunning predictability and in this case the formula works (but it’s still unashamedly a formula). This is night time driving music at its best, and in my book topped only by Amon Tobin’s Bricolage, or Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. The short Lolapalooza is no exception (Stephen Gardiner describes it as a ‘lark’ for orchestra), although it does at times veer refreshingly from the tried and tested route. With its unusual rhythmic breakdowns and changing tempi, especially in the final bars, one gets the impression that this machine is gradually stalling. The difficulty with Adams music is that it requires impeccable precision and timing, something which the NSO struggled with, making this performance more Trabant then stretch limo.

In contrast to the above, Stephen Gardner’s music got the balance just right especially in his earlier work Wanting, Not Wanting (1992). According to Gardner, this is based loosely on the impression of an Irish air ‘Snaidhm an Ghrá’, yet this influence is never clearly audible, and its mood also bears the weight of two acts of mass murder from the Northern ‘Troubles’. This works opening was one of the quietest and most beautiful introductions I have ever heard, the strike and decay of a gong left hanging in the air before being slowly picked up by the strings. Like Lindberg, Gardner often moves between ambiguity and clarity and it is during these unfoldings that he demonstrates fine control. There is an almost redemptive quality to the ‘revealing’ of melody and line here, as in the oboe passage at the work’s centre, or the trumpet solo based on an Ulster processional at its climax.

In contrast to the sombre inspirations of Wanting, Not Wanting, Gardner’s next piece, Wallop (1996), is more light hearted in intention. Even its orchestration seems to contain cinematic elements, and although John Adams’ influence is more apparent here, some moments could easily have been John Williams. Wallop consists of very deliberate and engaging forms which are inevitably swept into the colourful interactions between various sections of the orchestra which were the hallmark of this event. There is a fine balance between clear and predictable objectives and unexpected reactions to events. And unlike Lindberg, Gardner holds the conflict of competing designs in check by continually sustaining a single idea away at the edge of the frame.

Published on 1 March 2003

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