Become Ocean

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Thursday 19th May, 2016, 7:30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Sibelius  The Tempest – Prelude , 7′
  • Ravel  Piano Concerto in G major , 21′
  • Sibelius  The Oceanides, Op. 73 , 9′
  • Ravel  Piano Concerto for the left hand , 19′
  • John Luther Adams  Become Ocean (UK premiere), 42′

Steven Osborne’s encore – Ravel – Oiseaux Tristes from MiroirsIt’s been called “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history” and John Luther Adams’ haunting, Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean is fast becoming one of this decade’s most talked-about pieces of new classical music. We’re thrilled to be giving the first UK performance, with the conductor who gave its world premiere. Be there as we make history, in a concert that also features master-pianist Steven Osborne in both of Ravel’s magical concertos.

CBSO+ 6.15pm Hear CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock talk about tonight’s programme.

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Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

Click here for full review

…     “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.”     …

*****

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Review by Richard Whitehouse, ClassicalSource:

Click here for full review

…     “All credit to the CBSO for enabling Ludovic Morlot (who gave the premiere in Seattle almost two years ago) to schedule a piece that justifiably won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and deserves its place within the (not too crowded) orchestral repertoire of the early-21st century. The performance left little to be desired, not least because this is music ideally suited to the acoustic of Symphony Hall – filling the auditorium to a degree that even a ‘surround sound’ recording would be hard-pressed to emulate. Rarely have 42 minutes proved so immersive.

 The hour-long first half was almost a concert in itself. Continuing his exploration of Ravel, Steven Osborne played both Piano Concertos – (rightly) tackling the G-major first and getting to the heart of the opening movement as it alternates between brittle humour and bluesy longing. The Adagio was hardly less impressive, Osborne setting off with a discreet purposefulness that Morlot picked up on to ideal accord, and if the Presto felt at all calculated, its interplay of ingenuity and nonchalance held good through to the brusque closing gesture.

Even finer overall was the Left-Hand Piano Concerto, its three-movements-in-one format seamlessly and cumulatively negotiated so that intensity never flagged. Nor was Osborne fazed by its conception, playing with a clarity and definition as did not preclude a searching eloquence in the limpid theme whose heightened return in the coda crystallizes the expressive depth of this work overall. Morlot secured orchestral playing of real impact, while Osborne returned for an ‘Oiseaux tristes’ (second piece from Miroirs) interpreted with ineffable poise.

Each Concerto was prefaced with music by Sibelius. It is surprising the ‘Prelude’ from his music for The Tempest does not regularly open proceedings, given its surging impetus and sense of imminent catastrophe – both vividly conveyed here – make for a curtain-raiser like no other. If The Oceanides felt a little impassive near the outset, its swirling textures merged effortlessly towards the climax – a double helix of giddying immensity prior to the pensive close. Such evocations of immutable forces added cohesion to an already impressive concert.”    

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Review by Richard Ely, BachTrack:

Click here for full review

…     “The concertos apart, these works are not often programmed, so it was good to have a such a convenient ‘hook’ to hang them on. The Tempest, composed by Sibelius for a production of Shakespeare’s play, takes the form of a series of orchestral crescendos, replicating the rages of a storm at sea which finally subsides, exhausted. All sections of the orchestra enjoyed themselves in creating what could, in less assured hands, have been a shapeless cacaphony. Daringly, that first production substituted Sibelius’ work for Shakespeare’s introductory scene, which describes a shipwreck. On balance, and in a convincing performance like this one, I think Sibelius makes the point more eloquently than the Bard, even if this is one of the Finnish master’s minor works.

The same composer’s The Oceanides is a major work, though one seldom heard in the concert hall, so it was a pleasure to encounter a performance as auspicious as this. Beginning with a vivid impression of clearing mists, superbly played by violins and timpani, the piece progressed through other lifelike impressions of birdsong and the push of the sea to the central section, leading to the orchestral climax and the ‘appearance’ of the Oceanides – daughters of the sea god, Neptune. This was a wonderfully spotlit moment, before the piece settled back into the troubled stillness of the sea after a very different storm to the one that blew through The Tempest.

Since the programme placed the Sibelius works adjacent to the Ravel concertos, we were better able to appreciate the contrasting sound worlds of these two contemporaries, with the weighty orchestrations of the Finn meeting the pellucid textures of the Frenchman. They may not be the most searching works for piano and orchestra but they have an elusive charm, stopping just the right side of whimsy, that quickly gains and holds the attention if you’re in the mood. Perhaps the shift in mood required was too extreme, but in these performances by the increasingly impressive Steven Osborne, it was impossible not to surrender to Ravel’s introverted milieu, where even the ‘jolly little tune’ that kicks off the G major concerto has an air of abstraction hinting that tears are never far away. Although real depth of feeling threatens to intrude in the Adagio assai, the jazz-derived rhythms of the outer movements preclude too much introspection and the work finishes leaving the listener agreeably puzzled. As so often with Ravel, ambiguity is the key and Osborne had the measure of the solo part, which he despatched with unshowy virtuosity. Here and in the left-hand concerto, he showed himself to be a master of Ravel’s diffident art, as he did in a penetrating encore of Oiseaux tristes.”     …

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Review by Rebecca Franks, The Times (££):

Click here for full review (££)

…      “Steven Osborne was the truly superlative soloist: refined, direct, intelligent and instinctive. Every note was exactly in its place; the music sparkled and flowed. Glossy strings brought Hollywood glamour to the Left Hand Concerto, while the G major Concerto was a sunny riot of colourful detail.

And then it was the UK premiere of Become Ocean, Adams’s 42-minute, Pulitzer prize-winning orchestral soundscape. It is, explained Morlot, a meditation to be experienced rather than heard. I put away my notebook and let the music take over. Imagine staring at the ocean, noticing the surface ripples, then the short chop of waves, the roll of the swell, and – if you sit there long enough – the powerful pull of the tides. That’s what Adams translates into music; despite its meticulous construction there’s a complete lack of artifice. This isn’t music that “goes” anywhere, yet it is profoundly transformative. The ocean rises and falls. We sit and observe. My neighbour walked out, visibly riled. But I loved it.”

 

(fab) Blog Post by Dave Fawbert, ShortList:

Click here for full post

…     “Imagine this popping up on your Facebook page.

Become Ocean

 

Just look at it. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It looks like a sea of worker ants hauling miniature bridges across a page. And then you read the accompanying comment – it goes on for 42 minutes? There’s nearly 18,000 notes? What the hell is this piece? How would you go about composing such a thing? How on earth would you play it?

I had to hear it.     […]

[…]    

It was utterly glorious.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, shortly before beginning the piece

The orchestra was split into three sections: full-sized strings, woodwind and brass with each given slowly-moving passages of sound which rise and fall at different paces, while Ben’s piano, a celesta and several percussionists maintained the constant, underlying rippling effect, without pause. At three points in the performance, the peaks coincided. As a bonus trick, the entire piece was palindromic – so 21 minutes in, the whole thing was played in reverse.

It was staggeringly beautiful. As someone who has only dabbled in the ambient genre, this, to my limited knowledge, seemed to evoke the feelings of the very best: the gentle waves of sound of Jonsi & Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, the patience of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports and – I realise this is slightly specific – a constant reminder of the feel of the beautiful horn section toward the end of DJ Shadow’s Stem/Long Stem (the section around six minutes in).

It was surprisingly consonant: notes moved around but never clashed. Suspensions were left hanging gorgeously as other notes slowly moved to join them, never rushing. The passages unwound at a slow pace, yet Ben’s piano and his xylophone friends either side maintained a constant feeling of movement.

Fascinatingly, you would never have guessed the palindromic nature of the piece; the second half felt new and different. Moreover, for a piece 42 minutes long, it was over in what seemed a flash. Truly, this was transcendental stuff.

Afterwards, I asked Ben – fresh from playing 18,000 notes in 2,500 seconds (that’s a constant 7.2 notes per second, maths fans) – if it would be performed again soon. Sadly, due to the rather niche nature of the piece, he replied that it was unlikely.

What a shame. For I’m telling you now: they should put this stuff on the NHS. Forget Prozac, this is the only high you need in your life.”     …

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