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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Shostakovich’s Fifteenth

Wednesday 9th March, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Borodin  Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances , 14′
  • Osvaldo Golijov  Azul (UK premiere) , 25′
  • Shostakovich  Symphony No. 15, 42′

An opera that launched a pop song, a symphony out of time, and a new rhapsody in blue… The young Birmingham conductor Alpesh Chauhan has a flair for fantasy, and this concert is drenched in it, from Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances (think Stranger in Paradise) to the mysterious clocks that tick through the dying bars of Shostakovich’s last symphony. The CBSO’s own Eduardo Vassallo gives the UK premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s lush, baroque-inspired Azul..

Support the CBSO

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Review by Richard Bratby, TheArtsDesk:

Click here for full review

…     “As for Azul itself, it’s a 30-minute, single-movement arc for solo cello and an orchestra augmented by accordion, exotic percussion and occasional eerie touches of electronics. Golijov’s notion, apparently, is to “evoke the majesty of certain Baroque adagios”, with the cello less a virtuoso soloist than a leading voice, and the extra instruments serving as a kind of continuo section. In practice, this meant stretches of lush, harmonically static music broken by jagged, gradually building rhythmic ostinatos, fading at length to a horn-coloured sunset and a long, sliding final sigh.

Eduardo Vassallo - photo by Upstream PhotographyVassallo played with a sweet, glowing tone and evident commitment in music that didn’t sound particularly grateful for the cello (Golijov cites Berlioz’s Harold in Italy as a model). The lyrical opening section seemed to work best, making an effect somewhere between Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and one of those “Rainforest Moods” relaxation CDs they sell at garden centres. The audience gave it a standing ovation – almost unheard of at a CBSO concert.

But then, that was the spirit of the evening. Chauhan had set the mood with a flying, joyously balletic account of the Polovtsian Dances: springy, vividly colourful and delivered without a trace of self-indulgence. And laughter ran through the audience as he stepped down to adjust Vassallo’s music stand before Azul. “I was his student – some things never change,” he explained. As a product of Birmingham’s schools music service and a former cellist in the CBSO Youth Orchestra, this was something of a homecoming gig for Chauhan, and the warmth in the hall was genuine.

But that can’t account for the impression that Chauhan has made in recent seasons with orchestras as far apart as Scotland, Finland and Italy; nor is it enough to explain the sense of atmosphere and quiet power that he generated in Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony.”     …

 

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “For this UK premiere the solo part was played by the CBSO’s long-serving (since 1989) Argentinian principal cellist, Eduardo Vassallo. By a pleasing piece of symmetry Alpesh Chauhan, himself a cellist, is a sometime pupil of Mr. Vassallo, as he amusingly reminded the audience while helping his soloist to adjust his music stand before the performance began. (“I was his student: some things never change.”)

The work, which played for about 27 minutes in this performance, is in one continuous movement but divided into two sections. In the opening paragraphs the music was slow-moving and included long, high, soulful melodic lines for the soloist. The percussionists and the accordion supported the soloist with ear-tickling sounds; certainly Golijov’s sound palette is ingenious. I may be wrong but it seemed to me that for long stretches of the work Chauhan’s beat was largely a moderate 4/4, suggesting that Golijov does not here rely on frequent changes of metre, as is so often the case in contemporary music. But even if the pulse was fairly regular there was still considerable interest in the writing. At times, when the orchestral accompaniment had swelled to quite a significant level there seemed to me to be a Latin American feel to the music which I couldn’t quite identify. After the performance the penny dropped when my guest said he had detected a (benign) infludence of Villa Lobos. I agree, though the influence may not have been deliberate.

The second section began quietly with more sustained and intense lyrical writing for the soloist, this time against a rhythmically irregular accompaniment among the orchestral strings. Gradually the music grew in power and suggested to me a threnody. After a short cadenza-like passage for the soloist a remarkable passage of fast, vigorous music began. This was played by the soloist and the obbligato group. The soloist’s music was energetic in the extreme but it was the percussionists who really caught the eye –and the ear. They impelled the music forward with tremendously vital rhythms, deploying the full range of their assembly of instruments. At several points one of the percussionists was required to contribute wordless vocalizations. It was both fascinating and exciting to witness – I’m not entirely sure the section would have quite the same impact if experienced just through an audio recording. Eventually the orchestra joined in the frenetic dance. Then the music slowed and the accompaniment became quiet and warm though the cellist’s lines seemed plaintive. During the remaining minutes of the piece the music glowed though eventually Golijov introduced more dissonance, albeit not in an aggressive fashion. The piece reached its conclusion amid a welter of glissandi from the soloist and orchestra which gradually faded into silence.”     …

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Review by Clive Peacock, BachTrack:

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…     “Responsibility for compiling this vast array of instruments, including cajon, dumbek, darabuka, djembe and waterphone falls to Aidy Spillett, percussion section leader, who shot to prominence in 1998 as winner of the BBC Young Musician prize, later to become director of the vibrant, exciting percussion quartet 4-MALITY.

Golijov’s five part composition opened with flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic accompanying a strong cello lead before the introduction of the high-powered percussion unit positioned close to the conductor, whilst the double basses provided an ethereal contribution from a concentric arc positioned close to the choir stalls and behind the wind section. Vassalo demonstrated exceptional concentration in the blissfully played Silencia, the longest part, supported by extraordinarily sensitive interpretations of moods by the percussionists, accompanied by accordion player, Mark Bousie. During this part, conductor Chauhan was happy to put his baton down to allow the sublime cello sound to float above the clever innovative percussion before regaining control with a full orchestral flourish. Strings played ricochet with bows in the left hand and downward glissandi with the right, serving to produce high energy waves calling to alien life occurring beyond the Symphony Hall’s entranced audience. Chauhan, Vassallo and the Spillett team received the well-deserved standing ovation from many moved by the remarkable earthling performance.

Quotations from Rossini and Wagner litter Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony. Extracts from the William Tell overture and fate leitmotivs from Die Walküre and Siegfried signal a premonition to listeners, written just four years before the composer’s death. Chauhan has a wonderful feel for the music, dispensing with his baton to rely on hand movements to do his bidding. This he achieves most spectacularly in the third movement as first the violins and, later, the brass sections combine with the percussion unit to produce a sharp scherzo. With Wagner leitmotivs again evident in the last movement, Chauhan contrived to bring this puzzling symphony to a delicate, yet very competently delivered conclusion.”

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “Borodin’s evocative Polovtsian Dances conjured all their accustomed magic under Alpesh Chauhan’s balletic (not for nothing has he worked closely with Andris Nelsons) conducting, sculpting vibrant colours from the CBSO, and knowing when not to over-conduct. If the opening was paced a little hectically, the players coped well.

Then came the much-awaited UK premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul for cello and orchestra, ten years after it came into the world in Tanglewood, Massachusetts — a long delay. And it’s understandable why, with the work’s extravagant percussion contingent and its detailed demands concerning orchestral layout.

None of which were observed here, despite the many paragraphs devoted to it in Boosey and Hawkes’ unhelpful programme-note, which also failed to explain the meaning of the title.

Eduardo Vassallo was the committed, hard-working soloist, crossing a million miles across his strings, his cello singing a song which found its deliverance in a wonderful extended cadenza with a group of continuo percussionists placed close by (the only concession to the layout stipulations).”     …

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Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “The performance, though, was a fine one. The cello soloist was the CBSO’s principal Eduardo Vassallo, and the orchestra’s assistant conductor Alpesh Chauhan, who began his musical career in the CBSO Youth Orchestra, took charge. Russian music provided the frame: Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, from the opera Prince Igor, and Shostakovich’s final, death-haunted symphony, the 15th, in which Chauhan caught the edge of sardonic humour and bleakness perfectly – even if he made the finale’s puttering close a bit more prosaic than it ought to be.”

Biss Plays Mozart

Wednesday 16 December 2009 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121-780 3333

Robert Spano  conductor
Jonathan Biss  piano

Tiensuu: False Memories (UK premiere) 16′
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9, K271 31′
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 42′ Listen
requires Real Player

This young American pianist has already built a formidable reputation for his accounts of classical and early romantic music; here he plays what Brendel calls ‘one of the greatest wonders of the world’, a miraculous product of the 21-year old Mozart. Sibelius’s sweeping, passionate symphony has long been a Birmingham favourite, and Spano also introduces a work by one of the finest of the current amazing generation of Finnish composers.  www.cbso.co.uk

Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

http://www.birminghampost.net/life-leisure-birmingham-guide/birmingham-culture/music-in-birmingham/2009/12/18/review-cbso-jonathan-biss-roberto-spano-at-symphony-hall-birmingham-65233-25421791/

“..It works in short-breathed bursts of energy, with a central movement of slithery hypnosis, and the CBSO players responded with gutsy fire under the persuasive baton of Roberto Spano.” …

 
Review by Hilary Finch, The Times:

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/live_reviews/article6960689.ece

…”After a fierce and jazzy opening called, alluringly, Review, Tiensuu creates two even more disturbing movements. Nostalgy seems to conjure the nostalgia of a chill winter fog for the heat haze of summer. Piercingly high resonances of bowed cymbals, crotales and vibraphone fuse with frozen chords and the microtones of slippery, sliding string parts, frequently played out of phase. Trauma teases ear and nerves still further, with its trilling flutes, trembling strings and gong — and, again, with an unsettling yet seductive feeling of something recalled, but just out of reach, lapsed in time.” …