On 10 and 12 May Michael Wendeberg conducts Jonathan Harvey’s Tranquil Abiding with the Bielefelder Philharmoniker. The 14-minute work for chamber orchestra finds its imaginative wellspring in Harvey’s Buddhist faith, the title referring to a term for a state of single-pointed concentration.

It is based on a single, slow breathing rhythm: a simple oscillation between an ‘inhalation’ on an upper note and an ‘exhalation’ on a lower one. Overlaid with increasingly ornate melodic fragments, this simple unifying device creates an organic and coherent trajectory through the work’s wave-like form and towards its limpid conclusion, where a gentle rustle of exotic percussion and string pizzicati (the latter withheld until this point for maximum impact) bring the music to a close. See the score of Tranquil Abiding here.

Breathing is a recurring preoccupation of Harvey’s work, tied especially to the idea of inspiration, whose Latin root inspirare evokes the divine animation of the soul. Breathing finds numerous expressions in his output, subjected to an electronic transfiguration in Act one of his 1992 opera Inquest of Love, and given orchestral shape in 80 Breaths for Tokyo (2010), which, as Harvey says, “mirrors the infinitely variable, infinitely subtle and coloured ambiguity of breath”. 

Tranquil Abiding has received over fifty performances internationally since premiering in 1999 with the Riverside Symphony Orchestra and George Rothman at New York’s Lincoln Centre. Wendeberg previously conducted it with the Jugendsinfonieorchester Sachsen Anhalt in 2019.

Its other exponents have included Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (who recorded it as part of their Harvey portrait disc on NMC in 2012), the New York Philharmonic under Susanna Mälkki, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo, the BBC Philharmonic with Finnegan Downie Dear, and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, who have performed it with both Nuno Coelho and Dima Slobodeniouk. It also featured as part of the BBC’s Total Immersion focus on Harvey at the Barbican in 2012, performed by Richard Baker and students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Sakari Oramo will return to Tranquil Abiding with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2024 BBC Proms on 3 August.