This August the Ulster Orchestra and Jac van Steen feature music by David Matthews, who celebrates his 80th birthday, as part of their annual BBC Radio 3 Summer Invitation concert series in Belfast. On 4 August they perform Symphony No.9 (2016), and on 11 August are joined by cellist Santiago Cañón-Valencia for Dark Pastoral, Matthews’ 2010 realisation of a surviving fragment of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Cello Concerto (1942). Both concerts will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
Jac van Steen has an abiding interest in Matthews’ work. Having conducted Matthews’ Symphony No.10 with the BBC Philharmonic last year, on July 14 he gave world premiere of Matthews’ first opera Anna with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in a concert performance at the Grange Festival. The 100-minute work, with a libretto by Matthews’ late friend Roger Scruton, starred Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Rhian Lois, Oliver Johnson, Alex Otterburn, and Jonathan Lemalu; it tells the story of the two children of a dissident academic.
Matthews’ Symphony No.9 was premiered by Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra in 2018 at St. George’s Bristol; they recorded it in 2019. The 27-minute work revisits the form of Matthews’ Symphony No.4: five short movements, with a central slow movement surrounded by two scherzo-like parts. These are bookended by a traditional sonata form opening and finale whose triumphant main theme emerges after a prolonged period of uncertainty (like Sibelius’ Third Symphony, Matthews notes.) Its fourth movement, a subdued waltz with strings playing pizzicato throughout, is marked Ombroso (‘shadowy’); the earlier scherzo is based on scraps of blues-like material.
The symphony is part-dedicated to Matthews’ wife Jenifer for whom he wrote ‘Song for the Solstice’ in December 2015, from which the symphony’s material germinates. The carol looks forward to the changing of the seasons, and the Ninth Symphony is written in this same spirit, with Matthews calling its journey “a celebration of spring and the gradual strengthening of the sun”.
Dark Pastoral evokes a more elegiac landscape. It received its first performance at the 2010 Proms from the BBC Concert Orchestra, Paul Daniel and Steven Isserlis, who also premiered Matthews’ Concerto in Azzurro in 2002.
For the 11-minute piece Matthews orchestrated four minutes of Vaughan Williams’ surviving short score, which ends just as the music begins to tread a new path. Matthews composed the rest based on this first section, as well as creating some new material for the middle, whose mood is increasingly stormy and searching; it finally subsides in a resigned coda. In 2014 Matthews also created a version of Dark Pastoral for viola and chamber orchestra – it is also available in versions for cello or viola with piano accompaniment.