"Centenary Tribute to Musical Wordsmith"
by Tim Mottershead for remotegoat on 05/07/17

This concert celebrated the centenary of the writer Anthony Burgess. Best known for ‘A Clockwork Orange’, he also wrote two volumes of autobiography, the first of which dealt with his Manchester upbringing, and a novel about Napoleon, inspired by the form of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. A poet as well as a novelist, Burgess was also a prolific composer, and several of these strands featured during the evening.

For reasons of the length in terms of the overall programme, the Beethovenian connection was represented by the composer’s ‘8th Symphony’, his shortest. No matter, for it provided a good opportunity to hear one of his less often performed symphonies, and proved a superb opener: the BBC Philharmonic were conducted by Michael Francis in a finely balanced performance of grace and poise.

In the second half we heard Burgess’s own ‘Symphony in C’, written in four movements, and scored for an exceptionally large orchestra. The music showed an awareness of the music of British composers in the 1950s without sounding like any particular one. Indeed he sounded like any one of a number of figures successful both as ‘serious composers’ whilst being able to turn their hand to lighter fayre, and who made a notable contribution to cinematic music: William Walton, Malcolm Arnold, Alan Rawsthorne, and William Alwyn being just a few of the figures who spring to mind. Given that Burgess’s symphony dates from 1975, there seems to be something of a 20 year ‘time-lag’. Perhaps this suggests he hadn’t kept abreast of contemporary musical trends, in the way one suspects he had with literary ones? It might also come as a surprise that despite Burgess’s overtly cosmopolitan existence, that his music should sound so distinctly ‘British’. This was particularly noticeable in the first two movements (a sonata allegro, and a boisterous, noisy scherzo). The third movement revealed other influences, sounding like a popular song in orchestral garb, with some ‘pastoralisms’ of earlier eras. The basis of the finale was a (musical) theme by Shakespeare manipulated in various ways, but had a more immediately apparent difference from the previous music, due to the input of baritone Roderick Williams and tenor Robin Tritschler singing verses from the end of ‘Love’s Labour Lost’. This proved a thoroughly entertaining paean to nature, sung with relish, in marked contrast to some rather grim orchestral material at the start of the movement. An equally entertaining, though typically irreverent, programme note by Burgess enhanced one’s aural impression of the work.

We heard Burgess as poet in the undoubted centrepiece of the concert, the intriguingly titled ‘The World Was Once All Miracle’, which refers to the writer’s belief that, over time, all phenomena at first perceived as mysterious, will be eventually be explained. The work consisted of six Burgess poems set to music by Raymond Yiu as a symphonic song cycle. The six poems highlight three topics that fascinated Burgess: language, music, (of course!) and the conflict between good and evil.

Raymond Yiu’s voice is very much his own, and if one was occasionally reminded of Britten (cf. ‘Death in Venice’) this was for reasons of Gamelan- like sonority (tuned gongs, and multitudinous metallophones) which helped fashion such a beguiling and rapturous atmosphere, rather than musical substance. These elements, particularly noticeable at the start, which the composer likened to a (musical) clock, and in the outstanding fifth song, were enhanced in the second song by the peculiar, yet highly appropriate, sonority of wine glasses. Percussion was also deployed in the 3rd song to comedic effect, a great example of the music enhancing the original text. However, the composer saved the best until last, with a completely unexpected ‘jazz’ song which paid tribute to the likes of Jerome Kern, Gershwin, and perhaps more particularly the musical wordsmiths Cole Porter and Noel Coward. Different to what had gone before, this paid homage to the art of a previous era, in a way Burgess would surely have endorsed. Whilst (on first acquaintance) the opaque, valedictory verses hardly suggested a turn towards the entertaining, the composer’s solution was not only ingenious, but a triumph. To this end Raymond Yiu could not have wished for a better collaborator than Roderick Williams who sang as though these songs had long been in his repertoire.

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MIF continues the Burgess centenary celebration with a collaboration between artist Stephen Sutcliffe and director Graham Eatough. The duo explore the writer’s ‘Enderby’ novels in a new two part film work ‘No End to Enderby’ screened free at the Whitworth Art Gallery, continuing after MIF until 17 September.

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