A century ago, in-house composers were part of an opera house’s machinery: they conducted others’ music more than their own. Recently they have been re-invented by the modern symphony orchestra – or at least those orchestras that see it as part of their job to proselytise about contemporary music. Having a composer-in-association helps sustain the notion that the classical tradition is alive. Composers can play a useful role in education and PR, but alarmingly few are practising musicians, which puts them at a disadvantage to predecessors such as Britten and Hindemith, not to mention Bach and Mozart.
That may be one of the reasons why Jonathan Harvey’s latest commission from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra failed to make much impact at its premiere under Ilan Volkov. Despite being cast as a middle-aged person’s guide to the orchestra, showcasing most of the section principals in turn, Body Mandala does not sound gratefully written. Its impressionism is too fussy, its argument disjointed and compartmentalised. The recurring phalanxes of throbbing brass are redolent more of the clamour of a third worldcity than the cleansing rituals of a monastery. Nothing really adds up. It’s as if Harvey has been seduced by the random soundscapes of his imagination, at the expense of coherent musical structure. Perhaps he needs to come down from the clouds.
Volkov and the BBC Scottish did him proud, before delivering one of the finest Mahler performances I have ever heard. Volkov is the antithesis of the modern Mahler conductor: he sees no need to exaggerate or self-dramatise, because he understands that the exaggeration is already in the music. In the Ninth Symphony all Mahler’s expressive marks were there in full, the tempo fluctuations and climactic outbursts cradled and contoured by Volkov’s joined-up approach. When Volkov gets round to conducting Mahler in London, he will surely put the imposters to shame.
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