Resonate: the great British symphonic revival

A new fund will encourage orchestras to programme the best works by British composers of the past 25 years. Gillian Moore MBE selects the pieces that deserve to be heard again

There was a time, about half a century ago, when the symphony orchestra was deeply out of fashion with composers. The enfants terribles of mid-century modernism and American minimalism had little time for it either politically, institutionally or musically. They preferred inventing bespoke ensembles for every piece or, in some cases, using electronic instruments. But the orchestra survived, composers started writing for it again and, I’d argue, we’ve seen a particularly exciting revival of orchestral composition here in the UK in recent years.

Last week, the PRS for Music Foundation, the Association of British Orchestras and BBC Radio 3 announced a new project called Resonate, which is designed to celebrate and promote the best orchestral music written by British composers over the past quarter century. Orchestras from Glasgow to Bournemouth have long shown energy and inventiveness in commissioning new music, but composers have told me they sometimes find it easier to get a commission for new work than a much-needed second or subsequent performance. And it’s often hard for orchestra managers to know where to find the most interesting music. Resonate will provide a database of information and recordings on its website and orchestras can apply for funding to help them with the extra costs of programming new and recent works. It’s a beautifully simple idea.

The Resonate website reminded me that British composers from a broad spectrum have relished writing for the big beast that is the orchestra. It reminded me how many colours they can wring out of it; how many ideas they can express and stories they can tell. I’ve selected some pieces from the Resonate database that excited me: I think everybody should know them.

James MacMillan – Veni, Veni Emmanuel

Scottish composer James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel is probably the biggest orchestral hit of the past 25 years if number of performances is anything to go by, and it still has the capacity to bring the house down. It’s a percussion concerto, written in 1992 for the young Evelyn Glennie and based on the medieval antiphon of the title, better known to churchgoers as the stirring advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Like many medieval musical compositions, the material of the piece is spun from the single line of the plainchant. The melody is fragmented and appears in various guises, perhaps most notably in its climactic: “Gaude, Gaude” (Rejoice! Rejoice!)” whose iambic rhythm inevitably suggests a heartbeat. In the 25 minutes of the concerto, MacMillan shows dazzling skill in using orchestra and solo percussion, sometimes suggesting the murmuring voices, the cymbals, bells and even the acoustic of a medieval cathedral, and sometimes showing us music of orgiastic violence.

Jonathan Harvey – Body Mandala

Jonathan Harvey’s Body Mandala grabs the listener from the off with the hypnotic energy of its opening. The pounding, raucous, trance-inducing brasses and cymbals were inspired by a Tibetan Buddhist purification ritual that Harvey witnessed first hand in North India. The “fierce wildness” of this rhythmic chanting alternates with music which is brighter and freer, which Harvey likens to different parts of the human body “lighting up” as it is purified by the ritual. Harvey, who died in 2012, contributed some great electronic music to the literature and, although Body Mandala uses only the acoustic instruments of the symphony orchestra, we clearly hear that this is a composer who thought deeply about the actual stuff of sound.

Helen Grime – Everyone Sang

Helen Grime’s 10-minute orchestral work is inspired by Siegfried Sassoon’s famous first world war poem of the same title, where the soldiers’ singing temporarily lifts them out of the horror. Grime’s music is luminous and initially ecstatic, with a jagged melody in strings surrounded by joyous birdsong-like music in the winds, clearly inspired by Sassoon’s lines: “Everyone suddenly burst out singing / and I was filled with such delight / as prisoned birds must find in freedom”. But the mood soon turns inward, the song becomes like a dream played out in slow motion. As the energy picks up again, melodies are spun at different speeds until, at the end of the piece, the whole orchestra is joined in a high dance-like melody which is repeatedly interrupted by a slow, melancholy chorale, underlining the tragedy of Sassoon’s poem.

Thomas Adès – In Seven Days

Adès describes his piano concerto as a “video ballet”. The original Anglo-American commission was for a music/video work in celebration of two iconic concerts halls: Royal Festival Hall in London and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. All of the video images, by Tal Rosner, are derived from details of those buildings including, memorably, a forest made out of the miles of scaffolding which held up the RFH during its refurbishment. The concerto is a musical and visual depiction of the biblical seven days of creation, opening with possibly the most beautiful evocation of primal chaos to be found anywhere in music. As the music progresses, we hear the creation of light and dark, of the waters, the dry land, the sun, moon and stars and finally, in a sparkling fugue which strongly brings to mind Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the chattering creatures of land, sea and air.

Oliver Knussen – Flourish With Fireworks:

Knussen grew up listening to orchestras – his father was principal double bass in the London Symphony Orchestra – and he spent many hours as a child in rehearsals, getting to know it from the inside. And it shows in this brilliant, sparkling, four-minute piece which is often performed as a concert opener. Yes, we hear the fireworks of the title: rockets, catherine wheels and sparklers, and Knussen acknowledges his indebtedness to an early work by his beloved Stravinsky. But we also get ingenious and sophisticated games with the abstract materials of music: with time and speed, rhythm and harmony, metre and melody. This jewel of a work packs more into four minutes than many pieces do in forty.

Errollyn Wallen – Photography

A four-movement workout for string orchestra, and Errollyn Wallen clearly has the rich string sonorities of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in her head, as well as Bach and Handel. Photography is based not on visual images but on a distinct, musical picture, a different one for each of the four movements. The first movement is a clearly baroque-influenced energetic, pulsing dance; the second is an aria which directly quotes Wallen’s beloved Bach before going into darker-hued regions; the third is a tapestry of woven musical textures like a beautiful rug, and the last is another dance, stately, dignified and which builds to a big flourish at the end.

Tansy Davies – Wild Card

Tansy Davies has been called “Stravinsky for the club generation”, and this 23-minute work for large orchestra shows her music at its engaging and colourful best. Davies has previously spoken about being obsessed with tarot cards and their systems, games and patterns. On one level, the piece is a colourful parade of 22 characters and images from the weird world of the tarot which Davies vividly paints in the orchestra – we open, low in the orchestra, with the machinations of the devil; we hear the sinuous twining of lovers via two melodies. The High Priestess and the Magician are represented by a high, angular woodwind melody and a macho bass line. Another way of listening to the piece is as a sequence of dances, or games in which the orchestra is brilliantly deployed. Particularly striking is the use of a huge battery of percussion, from rain sticks to rototoms for which the composer specifies a reggae sound.

Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hammered Out

With his 2010 Proms commission Hammered Out, Turnage made a naughty joke at the expense of the classical music establishment. One one level, the work has all the signatures of Turnage’s great catalogue of bold, powerful orchestral pieces – an opening scream on the orchestra, the strong influence of black soul music from the 70s and a fluency with orchestral writing learned from Britten, Knussen and an apprenticeship with Simon Rattle’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It can be, and it was, discussed and reviewed in those terms (including by me). But to anyone under 40, Hammered Out was clearly an undisguised setting of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies, one of the biggest pop hits of the time, and much fun was had on the internet with YouTube mashups of the two. Six years on, Hammered Out stands out as vintage Turnage, simultaneously joyous and dark, and a brilliant snapshot of its time.

Michael Tippett – The Rose Lake

The Rose Lake is Michael Tippett’s last orchestral work, a large scale symphony written in response to visiting a famous site of natural beauty – Le Lac Rose – on a holiday in Senegal. “As things turned out, we reached Le Lac Rose at midday, just in time to see it turn a marvellous translucent pink,” Tippett describes. “The sight of it triggered a profound disturbance within me: the sort of disturbance which told me that the new orchestral work had begun.” This is surely one of Tippett’s most beautiful creations, a joyful and ecstatic emotional response to the glory of nature. The large orchestra creates aural colours and the battery of percussion allows allusions to West African music. The titles of the short movements are, in themselves, beautiful: The Lake Begins to Sing, The Lake Song Leaves The Sky, The Lake Sings Itself To Sleep.

  • Resonate is a partnership between PRS for Music Foundation, the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) and broadcast partner BBC Radio 3 with additional support from The Foyle Foundation and the Boltini Trust:


Gillian Moore

The GuardianTramp

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