Review: Tim Garland – Concerto for Percussion, Saxophone and Orchestra

London Symphony Orchestra, soloists, conducted by Francois-Xavier Roth
(Barbican Hall, May 5th 2011)

The apparent nonchalance with which the two soloists of Tim Garland’s “Concerto for percussion, saxophone and orchestra,” sauntered on to the Barbican stage disguised, but definitely couldn’t hide, the seriousness of their intent and the depth of their musicality.

The work, commissioned by the LSO and given its World Premiere last night, is busy and intricate. It is a vehicle for two complete virtuosi. The opening section of the first movement entitled “Talking in Drums” is marked “With Urgency.” Bars of 5/4 are alternating with bars of 3/8. Yes, do the math and you’ve got it: an entire symphony orchestra is required to swing, to fly… in 13/8. Every fleeting semiquaver of the saxophone part and of the drum kit part are in complete lock-step. And yet Tim Garland, saxophonist/composer and Neil Percy, percussion/dedicatee just seem to be breezing through this writing effortlessly. The movement does eventually settle down into 4/4, but the point is made.

Garland has been writing for orchestral forces for a number of years. His association with the LSO goes back to 2006, that with the Northern Sinfonia for longer. I sensed a significant development since his last concerto, Homage to Father Bach, which he wrote for the Northern Sinfonia and recorded for Audio -B in 2009.

In that piece Garland took the concerto grosso form and absorbed and transformed it. He was seeing Bach through the prism of Stravinsky. Here the influences on the orchestral writing are different. Garland is steeped in English music ; the string writing in the first movement – in a section marked “suddenly faster” – was very reminiscent of the Britten of, say, Les Illuminations

The emotional heart of the piece is the second movement, entitled “Nocturne for the Sleepless,” and here a new and vital language is emerging. Garland has – I’m guessing – been immersing himself in Berg. Not just the marimba writing from the third act of Lulu, but the elegaic, emotionally charged world, of the violin concerto. The music stays at those same extremes of diatonic harmony, and packs a similar emotional punch to Berg. The scoring brings out the darker woodwind colours of cor anglais and alto flute. The percussionist is invited in the score to “bring out the melody.” As Garland describes it “the shifting harmonies refuse the simple melody any rest.” The movement closed with a lively duet for the two soloists.

This happy dialoguing between good friends segued into the final movement “Click Track,” marked to be played “with joyous momentum.” The percussionist moves from cajon drum to hang to marimba to drum kit. The movement is – mostly – in regular time, but with fierce cross-accenting, and with the occasional pair of 7/8 bars sprinkled in like seasoning. The orchestral playing here showed the LSO at its fleet-footed best, woodwind chirruping angular phrases. The horn-section led by David Pyatt in particular was faultless. The final act is a duet in which Neil Percy, back where he strted the piece, on drum kit, and LSO timpanist Nigel Thomas launch out challenges to each other.

What future can, does a piece like this have? The score I got to look at before the performance was just a computer print-out. So it doesn’t look like there’s a publisher to pour out the booze and hawk the piece. The concerto is a challenge to the performers in the same way that the Brahms piano concertos were in their time. The LSO seemed to have the orchestral parts rapidly under their fingers, but the LSO are special. A continental orchestra would take a lot longer to learn it. But the standard of solo playing seems to go inexorably higher. I wouldn’t bet against younger players like saxophonist James Allsopp, and percusionists Jim Hart or Pedro Segundo being able to give this piece a run for its money. That isn’t to diminish the acchievement of last night’s soloists. I hope that one day that this finely wrought score can get played again.

The remainder of the concert was of Copland and Gershwin. My strongest memory of the all that will be the outrageously gifted 23 year old new principal trumpet of the LSO Philip Cobb soulfully intoning Prairie Night from Copland’s Billy the Kid. The whole work was commmunicated well by Francois-Xavier Roth and the LSO.

The rest was Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blue in Grofe’s full orchestra version had pianist Wayne Marshall as soloist. He is a massively equipped keyboard player. He played the written-out parts with panache and accuracy, but my ears needed more voice-leading, coherence and narration in his extemporisations, just to help me through them. The audience didn’t have any problem, giving him and his heroics the loudest cheer of the evening.

The 1932 Cuban Overture with a seven piece percussion section knocking out clave rhythms had lift and energy. It also had a feature for a fine musician, the LSO’s principal clarinettist Andrew Marriner.

Tim Garland’s Concerto was commissioned as part of the UBS Soundscapes: Pioneers series.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. Interested that you thought continental orchestras would struggle to get to grips with such a piece, whereas the LSO took it in their stride. Why do you think this is?

  2. Not exactly. I didn't say they would struggle, no. I said that I thought a typical continental orchestra would take longer to learn it. German and Austrian orchestras tend to get more rehearsal time. Ergo there is less need for them to sight- read, whereas the LSO have spent oodles of time in recording studios absorbing new stuff like film scores.

    I could of course be wrong, but I would be surprised if a musician like Ian Bousfield who knows both the LSO and the Vienna Phil wouldn't vouch for this.

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