CBSO/Morlot review – rich, deeply textured and all-encompassing

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Orchestral beauties swirl and build in an ever-changing score as the UK sees its premiere of John Luther Adams’ glorious Pulitzer-winning Become Ocean

First performed in Seattle in 2013, Become Ocean was the work that finally nailed John Luther Adams’ place among the front rank of living US composers. The 42-minute orchestral score won the Pulitzer prize for music the following year; it was released on CD, and has been widely performed across Europe. But it has only now reached these shores, in the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s concert with the same conductor who was responsible for its world premiere, Ludovic Morlot.

Pulsing sequences … conductor Ludovic Morlot.
Pulsing sequences … conductor Ludovic Morlot. Photograph: Marie Mazzucco

For 40 years now, Adams’ work as a composer has been inextricably linked with his involvement in environmental issues, but Become Ocean is the biggest, most overwhelming expression of those concerns so far. The score bears his stark epigraph: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

Yet the music itself is anything but stark or bleak. It’s rich, deeply textured and all-encompassing, and the three massive climaxes that articulate the huge span – moments when the pulsing sequences that Adams assigns to his groups of strings, woodwind and brass come exactly into phase – seem more celebratory than apocalyptic. The presence of the musical processes underpinning this glorious, constantly changing stasis is impossible to ignore – there are precisely planned symmetries everywhere, and the work itself is one gigantic palindrome – but the orchestral beauties and the tonal harmonies never seem contrived.

As its waves steadily accumulate, subside and build again, Become Ocean seems to be part of a tradition stretching right back to the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold, via Debussy and Sibelius. Morlot had included sea-inspired Sibelius in the first half of this concert, with the wild Prelude from the incidental music to The Tempest, and the tone poem The Oceanides. They had been interleaved with something completely different – Ravel’s two piano concertos, in which Steven Osborne was the typically fluent, poised soloist.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

CBSO/Morlot, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Rian Evans

17, May, 2007 @10:54 PM

Article image
CBSO/Volkov review – wonderfully agile quest for identity
Soloist Alexandre Tharaud brings all the right moves to Hans Abrahamsen’s atmospheric concerto for piano left hand

Andrew Clements

01, May, 2016 @11:33 AM

Article image
CBSO/Grazinyte-Tyla review – precision and power unite for symphonic storm
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla commanded orchestra and audience alike in a programme that spanned work by Mahler, Hadyn and her own Lithuanian compatriots

Rian Evans

18, Nov, 2016 @2:32 PM

Article image
CBSO/Collon review – frisson of theatricality for Holst's quiet masterpiece
Yvonne Howard and James Rutherford brought steely power to the mystical chamber opera Sāvitri, though a fierce Planets suite lacked depth

Andrew Clements

09, Feb, 2017 @2:35 PM

CBSO/Volkov – review

The CBSO played Sibelius with fabulous attention to detail, and Steven Osborne dazzled in Britten's Concerto, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

07, Feb, 2013 @3:24 PM

CBSO/Gardner – review

Birmingham began its cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies on fine form with the Fourth and Fifth under Edward Gardner, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

21, Oct, 2013 @4:05 PM

Article image
CBSO/Gardner – review

The CBSO breathed airy new life into Mendelssohn's homage to the printing press, which also has an unlikely Birmingham connection, writes Rian Evans

Rian Evans

16, Feb, 2014 @3:01 PM

CBSO/Gardner – review

This was a supremely intelligent handling in challenging acoustics of Britten's visceral work, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

26, Jun, 2013 @5:03 PM

CBSO/Matheuz – review

Diego Matheuz made Enrico Chapela's meditation on astrophysics sound easily digestible, but revealed little of himself in the programme, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

29, Mar, 2013 @5:04 PM

CBSO/Nelsons – review
After a cautious start to Beethoven's First Symphony, the CBSO's playing of the Second boded well for the rest of the series, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

20, Sep, 2012 @4:37 PM