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Music: Heaven is Shy of Earth \ Julian Anderson \ BBC Symphony Orchestra \ BBC Symphony Chorus

November 28, 2010

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus conducted by Oliver Knussen was joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley in the world premiere of Heaven is Shy of Earth by Julian Anderson (pictured left) on Friday 26 November 2010, at the Barbican Concert Hall.
What makes a new work successful? Is it simply the music? Or is it something else?

I had seriously underestimated the music of Julian Anderson (pictured left) music, a problem many contemporary composers must surely face when trying to connect with audiences, it has to be said. There’s an assumption that new music will be difficult or impenetrable. It takes a special kind of person to cast aside the stereotypical assumptions and take the plunge.

The first time you hear the ‘contemporary music’ may be memorable (I have a vague recollection of hearing the world premiere of the ‘nearly finished off’ version of Julian Anderson’s work Heaven is Shy of Earth at the Proms in 2006), but the music itself may quickly fade from memory.

This is largely to do with what is memorable. An event – a location, the smell, the people, the feeling of excitement you may have attending the event may stick in the brain longer than the unusual sounds you will hear in a new composition. It’s the feeling you had hearing that work for the first time which is most important. The newness of the work – its unusualness – may make the work itself less memorable. After all, who wants to hear anything that’s derivative? Who wants to walk from the concert hall whistling something you’ve heard before?

That new composition has to be original. As a composer you’ll also want it to be representative. You’ll also want it to engage the audience as well as the commissioners. You’ll want to build on your reputation. Or, if you can’t do that, you’ll want to maintain it. Whatever the outcome, you’ll want the impact of your composition to lodge your name in the minds of your audience. Your future solvency and possibly that of your offspring may depend on it.

OK, so maybe I’m taking that a bit far. Maybe I’m being a little overly dramatic about that. Hearing Anderson’s now completed Heaven is Shy of Earth at the BBC Symphony Orchestra gig on Friday night, I was however reminded of the most remarkable and most fragile of occupations. That of present-day composer.

If you’re an artist looking to draw on your skill to express yourself, then it’s a phenomenally tough existence. Quite apart being able to translate personal inspiration into an aural experience which you hope will appeal to as many people as possible, you’re also having to keep yourself in check ensuring you don’t compromise too much (if at all). After all, if the audience doesn’t enjoy it then at least you’re going to want to make sure that you’ve enjoyed the process.

Or maybe it’s not like that. Maybe composing doesn’t demand such incisive thought processes. Maybe composition is just instinctive. Maybe the skill at translating a soundscape in the mind into something on paper in pursuit of something in the concert hall is nothing more than riding a bike. Composers probably don’t even think about what they’re doing when they do it. How sickening.

But back to Heaven is Shy of Earth. Why did it engage my attention during the concert? Why too does it still entrance listening to it back?

BBC Symphony Orchestra

If I’d heard it on the radio first off, I may not have connected with it as much, it’s true. In the Barbican however, the sight of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus was impressive. In that respect, the sense of occassion imposed by the traditional presentation formula was vital. But the Barbican does more. Unlike any other concert hall in London, the Barbican concert hall has a meditative effective on the individual when the doors close. The acoustics flatter without exaggerating.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley sang warmly without the thick sauce some other performers ladel on when they sing. And the chorus – save for one or two moments of what sounded like sheer panic – complimented with an equally full and uncompromising tone. This performance had foundation. And 60-70% of good foundations comes from enthusiasm for the music, something which in turn normally has its roots in enthusiasm for the composer.

But none of this would be sufficient if the music wasn’t any good. Anderson’s writing isn’t the self-indulgent example of academic excellence one might assume a contemporary composer to find irresistable. Instead, his writing maintains an acceptable compromise between the old and new, never overlooking the most important element in the concert hall – the audience.

If you’re new to the work, keep a close ear on the rich orchestrations and the brilliant chorus writing which permeates Heaven is Shy of Earth. Then treat the work – and the composer – as a yardstick against which other composers can be measured. Definitely worth a few repeat listens before the 7 day time limit is up.

:: Listen to a swift post-concert review from me plus an interview with composer Sean Shepherd whose work Wanderlust was performed in the first half of this concert.

:: Listen to Heaven is Shy of Earth recorded live at the Barbican Concert Hall via BBC Programmes

:: Listen to an interview with BBC Symphony Orchestra General Manager Paul Hughes.

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2 Comments
  1. David England permalink

    Many thanks for writing and posting this. Nobody in the press seems to have bothered.

  2. Welcome sir. It was a good night. Good to see you there too.

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