Symphony

2003

by Julian Anderson


Julian Anderson: Symphony Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 4 December 2003 (world premiere) City of Birmingham SO/Sakari Oramo ‘For several minutes the baton seemed to be tracing patterns in thin air. Coughs, rustles, score-turning by eager critics: not a note of music to be heard. And then a strange sound like distant layers of ice fracturing, a cool blue flute horizontal, a moment of melting in harp and piano. This was the start of Julian Anderson’s new Symphony. Although the musical processes of this 18-minute, single-movement work are rigorously abstract and workmanlike, its initial inspiration was a painting by the Finnish artist and friend of Sibelius, Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Morning by a Lake. The symphony is in no way descriptive or programmatic, but it meets the senses head-on like a slow, sometimes violent thaw. Those strange sounds at the start are made by brush-bowing on the strings and “bowing” the piano’s strings — noise at the very threshold of audibility. Throughout, Anderson uses what, even for him, is a wide range of technical “effects” — breath tones to pitched percussion to retunings — to carry his symphony from near-immobility to what he calls “the very limits of playability”. It’s as though he’s been seduced and intoxicated by the skills of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, of which he is the composer-in-association, and the no less virtuoso acoustic of Symphony Hall. At times the sheer impact of the scoring and the atmosphere it creates threatens to distract from, even suffocate, the typically artful and assured musical transformation which is going on. For the alternation between the slow, chilled sections and scherzo-like, increasingly violent “thaws” is brilliantly achieved in a process of rhythmic and harmonic transformation as well as variation, expansion and compression.’ The Times (Hilary Finch), 8 December 2003 ‘… there are enough ideas to sustain a piece twice as long by many other composers. Though the music is fundamentally abstract, one of Anderson's starting points was a Finnish painting of melting ice. Everything in his piece seems to be a state of flux, with shapes and tempos constantly changing, and the thematic material always liable to transform itself. The result is a complex network of musical relationships, laid out with enormous accomplishment in a glistening sound world.’ The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 6 December 2003 ‘The initial inspiration, “Morning by a Lake” by Finnish artist (and contemporary of Sibelius) Axel Gallen, seems extra-musical – and non-symphonic – enough. But the content of the canvas, with fissures of ice crossing the lake’s surface so that it seems to be in the process of unfreezing, offers an abstract and inherently symphonic procedure. So it proves over the 18-minute course of Anderson’s piece, which evolves as organically and as inevitably as a post-Sibelian symphony ought to do. Although playing continuously, the work passes through numerous formal subdivisions – how many depends on how it is listened to. While Anderson’s programme note indicates 12 possible sections, in accordance with the music’s overall dynamic and rhythmic trajectory, it is possible to hear Symphony as an extensive sonata-form movement; with the rapid alternation of slow and scherzo-like episodes towards its centre as a development of the ideas – a harmonic progression rising upwards through the bass, culminating in an animated chorale – preceding them. This ’exposition’, preceded by a slow introduction where the melodic and harmonic components emerge gradually into audibility, is then drastically compressed and reprised in the final minutes – presaging a coda whose chords distil the harmonic momentum of the whole work, followed by the spiralling conclusiveness of the closing bars. Yet at whatever level one listens to the work, its formal cohesiveness and tonal subtlety – the latter extended by the presence of solo flute, clarinet and (sampled) piano tune


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