"...a symbiosis of technique and poetry..." The Guardian (Tom Service)
Beginning on October 27 Edward Gardner will conduct George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon in his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. These performances continue the Cleveland Orchestra’s association with Benjamin’s music, previously giving the world premiere of his 2008 work Duet and the US premiere of Palimpsest II in 2002. In March 2023 Gardner returns to Benjamin’s music, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Sudden Time (1993).
Ringed by the Flat Horizon was Benjamin’s first orchestral work and performed at the BBC Proms in 1980 when the composer was just 20 years old. It has received over 200 performances internationally subsequently, in interpretations from leading conductors including Mark Elder, Susanna Mälkki, Kent Nagano, and Antonio Pappano. In 2006 the piece was choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker under the title D'un soir un jour for dance company Rosas, alongside Benjamin’s Dance Figures.
The 20-minute work was inspired by lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – the poem celebrates its centenary this year – and a dramatic photograph of a thunderstorm over the desert of New Mexico. Benjamin writes of the piece,
I wanted to portray an eerie tension as a landscape is overwhelmed by a vast storm. The work starts slowly and mysteriously, with a succession of three textures that recur throughout the structure – weird, soft, bell chords, a sustained semitone clash, and deep tremors in the lower registers of the orchestra which depict distant thunder. Piccolo solos surrounded by high violins follow, and fuller developments of the opening ideas, gradually transform the momentum to faster music. Here a sonority of wind and muted trumpets, punctuated by wooden percussion, is juxtaposed with quieter, more lyrical cello solos. There follows a sequence of dark, ominous chords for full orchestra (a sound completely new to the piece), interspersed with solo melodic lines over the deep tremors of the opening. For a moment the original semitone clash hovers motionless in the air; the thunder at last erupts in a violent explosion; and the work returns to a mood of unreal calm, ending as it began, with a soft bell chord.
In the Guardian Tom Service suggested the work “already bore testament to a compositional voice of worldly maturity in its handling of structure and colour…the piece creates a symbiosis of technique and poetry that subsequent works would further refine.”