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BBC Prom 39
15 Aug 2017

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

BBC Prom 39

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sally Matthews, Kazushi Ozo, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Mihoko Fujimura

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou,

 

At this Proms performance, the first outside Japan, soloists soprano Sally Matthews and mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura were joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Finchley Children’s Music Group and the New London Children’s Choir under the baton of Kazushi Ozo, who conducted the premiere in November 2016.

Ozo drew fine and committed performances from all involved but I found this work ‘of commemoration, consolation and contemplation’ rather unengaging and unaffecting. This is partly, I think, because Turnage’s seven movements place assorted contexts and circumstances side by side - a natural disaster, a WWII bombing raid, the deaths of innocent children, the tragic culmination of a love-suicide Bunraku play - without convincingly making such moments cohere, and without really penetrating through the cultural surface. What does a tsunami have to do with an incendiary raid on Tokyo? How can a chain of six musical ‘threnodies’ offer any real consolation for such terrible loss of life of an almost unimageable scale? And, what are we to make of the ‘Suntory’ Dance which they frame - is it a celebration, a dramatization, a ritual?

Moreover, what sort of musical language and form should any such ‘consolation’ assume? Turnage’s orchestral score is characteristically lively, with syncopations vying with jazzy grooves, and the large orchestra - especially the percussion and brass - is exploited to kaleidoscopic effect. There are also meditative vocal passages which offer contrast. But there’s a disjuncture between Turnage’s orchestral vernacular and the texts presented in four of the movements, which range from English translations of various Japanese texts - Sō Sakon’s ‘Hashitte iru’ (Running) and an excerpt from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s The Love Suicides at Sonezaki - to, conversely, the Japanese variant of the nursery rhyme, ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ - ‘Kira, kira hikaru’.

The first two movements are orchestral though, and depict two prefectures - Iwate and Miyagi - which were hit by the 2011 tsunami. ‘Iwate’ starts with a repetitive, fragmented pattern which, picked up by the brass and percussion, rapidly escalates into a dynamic whirl of high woodwind and trumpet contrasted with swelling strings. Dove-tailed blocks of sound provide unceasing variety of texture, until the ominous pounding of the timpani threatens disintegration, and spaces open up with low growling trombone juxtaposed with piercing piccolo. A jazzy syncopation suggests a grotesque dance of death which spins into oblivion. ‘Miyagi’ opens quietly; eerie moans creak and float over the sound string lines, presaging the disturbing, violent orchestral stabs which fracture the silence.

The two soloists are introduced in the third movement and present Sō Sakon’s poem, from his collection Mother Burning, which describes his experience as a child of trying to escape - ‘running through the sea of fire a road of fire’ - after the death of his mother in an incendiary raid in 1945. The dancing trumpet heralds a siren, marking the two soloists’ anxious repetitions of ‘running’ and ‘mother’ which build to a panicking climax. Both Matthews and Fujimura projected their short intertwining phrases with power and focus against the brass outbursts - suggestive of roaring, surging flames - until subsumed by a clamouring orchestral wave.

The solo clarinet coaxed the children’s chorus into a sweet-toned rendition of the nursery rhyme, the brightness of the vocal colour and the sparseness of the orchestration serving to cleanse away the violence of the preceding movement, as the celestial body offers assurance to star-gazers and guidance to night-time travellers. The unfolding stanzas were accompanied by increasingly animated textures, culminating with Matthews’ glowing statement of wonder at the nature and significance of the bright and tiny spark.

The ‘Suntory Dance’ followed, starting darkly but gradually stirring up primal energies and skipping exchanges between percussion, low strings and horns. Both Turnage and the BBCSO players showed their rhythmic precision and virtuosity in this inventive dance which, even when full brass shone forth and the violins soared high, never quite assumed a celebratory air. (An incidental side-note: Hibiki, or ‘Japanese Harmony’ is a brand name of a blended Suntory Whisky, which the renowned distiller remarks ‘was launched in 1989 to commemorate Suntory’s 90th anniversary, and has ever since been embraced as the paragon of The Art of Japanese Whisky, the very product of Japanese nature and her people’ - which if nothing else demonstrates the potential for cultural misappropriate and disjuncture.)

Fujimura sang ‘On the Water’s Surface’ with beautifully shaped phrasing which captured the melancholic rapture of the text, enhanced by sensitive clarinet solos and underpinned by nudging bass gestures. There is a coolness about the instrumental timbre, fittingly so, for this time the stars lead to the ‘joy beyond extinction’. The elegiac mood was sustained in the final section, ‘Fukushima’, in which the children’s chorus spun melismatic repetitions of the name of nuclear power plant which, following the tsunami, experienced three nuclear meltdowns and hydrogen-air explosions resulting in the release of radioactive material second in quantity only to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. It certainly made for a meditative end, but the children could really have been repeating any single word to produce the same effect.

In the first half of the Prom, we heard two French impressionist masterpieces, but neither quite made their full mark. Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune was beautifully played - delicate, precious, silkily assuaging - but conveyed little of the emotional highs and lows of the narrative of the faun’s insouciant pan-pipe gambolling, rapturous arousal by the passing nymphs and naiads, and exhausted abandonment to vision-fuelled sleep. It’s almost impossible for Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto not to win over an audience and, making his Proms debut, Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan gave a refined performance of effortless virtuosity, skipping lightly through the fancy passagework. But, while Barnatan’s technique may be flawless, Ozo needed to draw a dash more jazzy vitality from the BBCSO to balance the lyrical wistfulness. The ‘Classical’ simplicity of the slow movement worked its unaffected charm, and the cor anglais provided the requisite nostalgic tints, but the whip-crack buzz was missing from the finale. It took an encore - Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso in E major Op.14 - for us to have opportunity to enjoy Barnatan’s full expressive range and depth, from elegance to bombast, from majesty to impishness.

One other small observation to conclude: the expressive narrative and unity of both Ravel’s concerto and Turnage’s Hibiki were disrupted by the Prommers’ habit of applauding every movement. Concentration and coherence are both aided by silence.

Claire Seymour

Prom 39: Debussy - Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune; Ravel - Piano Concerto in G major; Mark-Anthony Turnage - Hibiki (European première)

Inon Barnatan (piano), Sally Matthews (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano), Kazushi Ono (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Finchley Children’s Music Group, New London Children’s Choir .

Royal Albert Hall, London; Monday 14th August 2017.

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