Music review: Five Telegrams by Anna Meredith

24 August 2018

William Dundas is at the Edinburgh International Festival

Ryan buchanan

A moment in the light show for Five Telegrams at the Edinburgh International Festival

A moment in the light show for Five Telegrams at the Edinburgh International Festival

THIS year’s opening event at the Edinburgh International Festival was Fergus Linehan’s most ambitious and and successful light show. It was a joint venture with the BBC Proms, and the First World War Centenary Arts Commissions in London.

Five Telegrams, by Anna Meredith, is a 25-minute work bringing together a symphony orchestra, youth chorus, and digital projections. Each of the five movements reflects on modes of communication during the period of the First World War: Ciphers & Codes, Redaction, Propaganda & News Reporting, Field Postcards & Personal Communications, and Armistice.

The sound world was dominated with deep static pulsing interjected with erratic outbursts of strident contrasting noise: a digital battlefield. I found it very energising to be randomly bombarded by bright flashing images and loud noises — in contrast with those who experienced action on the front line.

The opening concert of the festival was a refined and elegant performance of Haydn’s The Creation. The performers were the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the vocal soloists Sarah Tynan, Robert Murray, and Neal Davies, and the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS). The conductor was Edward Gardner.

All of them produced nuanced and assured performances, none more so than NYCOS. From the outset, I was struck by the clarity and confidence of their attack and sectional entries; and each section seemed to sound as one voice. The chorus master, Christopher Bell, has much to be proud of in these singers. The performance is scheduled for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 10 September.

The following afternoon, NYCOS had their own concert, featuring Five Mystical Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Five Spirituals by Michael Tippett. These pieces offered the singers an opportunity to demonstrate yet again their focus on tone, an elegant line, and a subtle but strong dynamic range.

The other pieces were by Thea Musgrave and Eric Whitacre, a contemporary American composer. Musgrave’s pieces were pure whimsy, and the singers relished the opportunity to show off their fun side. Whitacre’s piece was based on the biblical text “When David heard that Absolom was slain” (2 Samuel 18.33). There is great repetition of this short text in a variety of speeds and styles, and it was a tour de force on which to conclude this concert. NYCOS was conducted by Christopher Bell and accompanied by the baritone Andrew McTaggart, and the organist Michael Bawtree.

The London Symphony Orchestra has a new musical director in Sir Simon Rattle: they are becoming acquainted. It was apparent in the performance of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”, that the complexities involved for a piano soloist, large orchestra, and conductor require all involved to be ultra-aware of each other while holding their own artistic direction.

Krystian Zimerman “narrated” the piano entries, seemingly taken up by the orchestra and worked through together in psychotic episodes. This piece is short on obvious structure but laden with an amazing array of orchestral moods and colours. The closing piece of the concert was Leoš Janácek’s spiky and lively Sinfonietta. Here again, there were large forces, including extra trumpets and Wagner tubas. Everything was assured.

The middle offering was Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances, Op. 72: all eight of them. My heart sank. They offer many flourishes and solos for orchestra members, and are a good choice for showcasing the orchestra if lightly tedious for the audience. I have evidential proof for this assertion. The applause rang out at the end of number seven. Rattle waited with his band patiently, half-turning to the audience to say thanks anyway. Number eight was duly played, also to much applause. It was in these pieces that it was most evident that a relationship is still being formed: there was plenty of interventional conducting.

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