Belief and beyond Belief: Rebel, Milhaud, Adams
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski
Royal Festival Hall, 28 January 2017
Jean-Féry Rebel: Simphonie nouvelle – Les élémens
Darius Milhaud: La Création du monde
John Adams: Harmonielehre
During 2017, the Southbank Centre and the London Philharmonic Orchestra are presenting the ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ festival, “exploring what it means to be human” through “the music, art, culture, science, philosophy, ritual and traditions that have risen out of religion in its many guises”. The link between those aspirations and the music heard in this concert was perhaps a little vague, but nonetheless this was an adventurous bit of programming from the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, drawing together three completely different musical worlds (French baroque, 1920s jazz-era Paris and 1980s America) involving, in effect, three different orchestras. If there was a theme, it was perhaps the way that three very different composers tried to draw inspiration from apparent chaos. Rebel starts by depicting the chaos of the beginning of the world, as understood by 18th century cosmology; Milhaud combined creation myths with the seemingly chaotic world of 1920s Paris jazz; while Adams moved himself out of a creative block created by the chaotic post-Schoenberg clash between musical minimalism and complexity.
The bravest of Jurowski’s choice of pieces was Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les élémens, billed at the time as a Simphonie nouvelle. Well known in the early music period instrument world, it is a rarity for the modern symphony orchestra and, I would imagine, for many of their target audience (who applauded after every one of the ten movements). The paired-down orchestra (30, rather than Rebel’s probably original 50) included a harpsichord and two theorbos but otherwise used modern orchestral instruments. Although the characteristic sound world of instruments of Rebel’s time was sadly missing, Jurowski (perhaps helped by his experience with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) did manage to bring an element of 18th century panache to the music. The opening movement is a wonderfully early example of twelve-tone composition, using every note of the scale, played by all the instruments at once; the resulting confusion de l’harmonie depicting the chaos of the creation of the universe. The following movements reflect the elements in pictorial fashion before more human aspects arrive, in the form of La Chasse and the penultimate Air pour l’amour.
Perhaps trying to channel Rebel’s former mentor, Lully, Vladimir Jurowski arrived on stage with a curious cross between a military Turkish crescent (sometimes known as a Jingling Johnny) and a small lamppost, giving an extravagant baroque bow to the audience. Lully is known (aided by film) for using a large conducting stick which he banged on the ground to keep time, eventually ramming it into his foot leading to the gangrene that killed him. Jurowski’s Jingling Johnny sat in a frame until towards the end, and then failed on its first floor thump, the little bells flying off from the top and landing next to a bemused cellist, who seemed unsure what to do with it. He eventually gave it back to Jurowski who rattled it in his left hand while banging away with his right. Turkish crescents were not banged on the ground but were shaken, and had far more bells. And Lully’s conducting stick was far closer to a shepherd’s crock or crosier than a Jingling Johnny and certainly did not have jingles on it, so I am not sure quite what point Jurowski was trying to make. But it was entertaining.
I think Rebel (along with many other Baroque composers) would have liked jazz. Darius Milhaud did, having first experienced it in London in 1918 and then in New York in 1922. Asked to compose a score for a ballet based African creation myths, gave him the excuse to develop his own compositional ideas, based on jazz. The result was La Création du monde, written for a 17-strong orchestra. Its six continuous sections open with a bluesy Ouverture with a prominent saxophone part, (here played by Martin Robertson) followed by Milhaud’s own version of Le chaos avant la création, depicted as a grotesque fugue. A sequence of instrumentally colourful movements follow, with mankind arriving to a cakewalk (with two violins and bassoon) followed, it being Paris, by Le désir as the couple almost immediately kiss.
If any of the LPO players felt left out of the first two pieces, the enormous orchestral forces for John Adams’ Harmonielehre (study of harmony) more than made up for that. It was composed in 1985, but refers back to Schoenberg’s 1910 textbook of the same name, written at the time he was about to break the centuries old tradition of western harmony. Adams immediately challenges the harmonic breakdown of Schoenberg’s later atonal music by his opening battery of crashing E minor chords. The first part lasts for nearly half the total length, it mood ranging from driven and energetic to a layering of lush melodies over bustling minimalist accompaniments. The reflective second part, The Anfortas Wound channels Wagner and Sibelius into a series of enormous crescendos, culminating in a dramatic scream that would make Mahler proud. The final part, Meister Eckhardt and Quackie refers to a dream about Adams’ newborn daughter (nicknamed Quackie). In musical terms it depicts an extraordinary battle between the opening key of E minor and the finally triumphant E flat major.
This was a real challenge to the vast array of LPO players, and one to which they rose magnificently – as they did to the two earlier pieces. The array of orchestral colours was mesmerizing. It was also interesting to compare Vladimir Jurowski’s strict and minimalist conducting style with the flamboyance of his opening Rebel piece.