On 11 April George Benjamin conducts the Portuguese premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon. The piece debuted in 2021 at the BBC Proms with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Benjamin has said that the piece attempts “to conjure a trace of the energy, humour, and spirit” of its dedicatee Oliver Knussen; in December 2023 Benjamin programmed the piece alongside Knussen’s Choral (1970-72) for wind, percussion and double basses at the Concertgebouw.

The Concerto is varied and dynamic across an unbroken 17-minute span, with skittish lines playing against still, suspended ones. Its various instrumental protagonists play multiple roles – both dramatic and sonoric – including a volatile solo tuba, elaborate horn duos, bubbling clarinets and two pairs of rumbling timpani. Most prominent of all are the impassioned first violins, who almost have the last word during the work’s tranquil conclusion.

Watch Benjamin conduct the Philharmonique de Radio France in the Concerto for Orchestra here. The full score of the Concerto for Orchestra was published in 2022 and is available to purchase here. It was commissioned by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, supported by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation and the Karolina Blaberg Foundation, and BBC Radio 3.

Since its 2021 premiere, the piece has received some 20 performances internationally; as well as the MCO, Concertgebouw, and Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France, its exponents have included the London Symphony Orchestra, Gürzenich Orchester, and Orchestre National de Lille. Benjamin himself has conducted the work on numerous occasions – other conductors to take it up have included Danel Harding and Susanna Mälkki. On 7 September Benjamin conducts the work with the Lucerne Festival Contemporary Orchestra.

The programme in Lisbon also includes Benjamin’s Dream of the Song with Bejun Mehta and the upper voices of the Gulbenkian Choir. The 20-minute piece – part song-cycle and part cantata – sets verse by three major poets who spent formative years in Granada; two – Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol – wrote in Hebrew in the mid-11th century, while the third, Federico García Lorca, wrote in Spanish and was killed by Fascists soon after the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. All were inspired by 9th-century Arabic poetry in Andalucia.

Dream of the Song was written for Mehta, who gave its first performance at the Concertgebouw, recorded for release on Nimbus in 2017; he last performed the work in January 2023 with the Brussels Philharmonic, Vlaams Radio Koor, and Kazushi Ono at Flagey, and has previously sung the piece at the Barbican Centre, Tanglewood Music Festival, Philharmonie de Paris, Carnegie Hall, the Elbphilharmonie, and the Philharmonie in Berlin. Mehta also originated the role of The Boy in Benjamin’s acclaimed opera Written on Skin for the 2012 Aix Festival.