Celebrating the work of emerging artists and their 20th-century heritage, the LSO Futures concert series came to a spectacular close this weekend at the Barbican. In a two-part programme devised by conductor François-Xavier Roth, chamber and orchestral forces reckoned with the challenges posed to the symphonic tradition. With a variety of instrumentalists drawn from the London Symphony Orchestra the first of these two concerts (read about the second here) delved into the world of jazz, virtuosic percussion, and symphonic configurations in a bid to enhance our perception of orchestral sound. Showcasing Ionisation (1929–31) by Edgard Varèse, the world première of Modo Hit Blow (2013) by Jason Yarde, Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) by Igor Stravinsky and the Chamber Symphony (1992) by John Adams, Roth’s programme bristled with sonic curiosities.
In his introduction to the programme Roth identified the liberation of percussion from its perfunctory orchestral role as a significant characteristic of 20th- and 21st-century music. Whereas percussion had been used for decorative effect or rhythmical underpinning in 18th- and 19th-century repertoire, the music of the last hundred years has seen an explosive array of percussive instruments asserting their right to centre-stage. Varèse’s Ionisation is a prime example of this; written for thirteen percussionists playing on 40 different instruments, the composition was described by one contemporary critic as “a sock in the jaw”. The variegated ensemble includes multiple drums, cymbals and bells, as well as a piano, wooden claves and high and low sirens. It was the first score in which he introduced the electrical siren as a concert instrument – an indication of his endless fascination with new noises and the beginnings of his interest in electronic music. As rhythmic cells are ravaged and fractured, the music effectively imitates the scientific process suggested by the title whereby electrons are dispersed during atomic change. Roth’s serrated gestures prompted a thrilling performance from the LSO players and effectively straightjacketted this music into a ruthless chess game of dissipation and order.
The new LSO commission that followed was an eloquent response to the musical propositions put forth by Varèse. Described by the composer as “a comment on modernity scored for brass and percussion”, Yarde’s Modo Hit Blow sees a backdrop of percussive noise gradually infect its ensemble. It is cast in three interlinked movements that introduce the brass, percussion and soloists (Andrew McCormack on piano and Jason Yarde on soprano saxophone) respectively. The addition of brass directly after the percussive Ionisation made a significant aural impact. Yarde capitalized on this further by exploring a nuanced palette of brass sounds that included atmospheric blowing and delicate lip trills. His fascination with improvisation also informed this work, resulting in flexible phrases for the ensemble and passages of impromptu material for the soloists. The transition between constructed and extempore music was managed to perfection under Roth’s direction, as was the impulsive flitting between jazz scatting and symphonic climaxes. Such a seamless synthesis of music genres generated an emblazoned yet provocative musical experience for the audience.
With Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments the wind were now introduced into the mix. One of the most compelling facets of this work is its title, which refers to “symphonies” in the plural. Rather than providing a response to the symphonic tradition, Stravinsky was appealing to the older Greek usage of the word where it denoted simply “sounding together”. With its jaunty opening bearing the hallmarks of the Russian folk tradition, the work ventures through a matrix of harmonic crunches. Stravinsky’s merciless angularity apparently caused the audience to buckle with laughter at the London première in 1921. His jagged motifs, tritones, displaced rhythms and scattered folk characteristics are stitched together to form a whimsical offering. Strangely, a chorale composed in memory of Claude Debussy lies at the core of this eccentric work. Roth and the LSO players delivered this mysterious yet brooding passage with sonorous poise.
Roth’s programme concluded with John Adams’ lively Chamber Symphony. The idea for this work arose while Adams was studying the score of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony and simultaneously watching his seven-year-old son reacting to 1950s cartoons. Struck by the hyperactivity common to these two forms of entertainment, Adams set about composing music that would capture such a connection. The three movements – “Mongrel Airs”, “Aria with Walking Bass” and “Roadrunner” – evoke a broad symphonic sound yet retain the discrete dexterity of a chamber work. With the addition of strings, synthesizer and drum set, the orchestral jigsaw puzzle was complete. The programme notes took pains to cast Adams’ erratic polyphony as an enlightened departure from the more homogonised style that he is known for. However, Roth’s conducting successfully animated the vim and slapstick humour that is also present in this music, much to the audience’s delight.