As a composer, what do you do when you are commissioned a full-length orchestral work to commemorate the anniversary of a renowned concert hall? Do you try to write something celebratory? Not in Mark-Anthony Turnage's case. On receiving the commission from Tokyo's Suntory Hall for a work for their 30th birthday in October 2016, he chose (somewhat perversely) to write a work about loss and consolation for the Japanese people, five years on from the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. As with Turnage’s music in general, the work has strong contemporary resonance, although with considerably less edge than some of his earlier oeuvre.

Kazushi Ono, Mihoko Fujimura and the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Kazushi Ono, Mihoko Fujimura and the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Hibiki was given its European première at the BBC Proms by the massed forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, two London children's choirs and soloists Sally Matthews and Mihoko Fujimura, led with strong energy and conviction by Kazushi Ono who also conducted the world première in Tokyo last autumn. The work consists of seven movements. It's interesting to learn that the composer's working title was Six Threnodies and a dance, before Hibiki (which means beautiful sound, resonance, acoustics in Japanese) was suggested to him by the hall. Three of the movements are named after the worst-hit areas of the earthquake, Iwate (1st movement), Miyagi (2) and Fukushima (final movement); movements 3, 4 and 6 have texts (settings of Japanese poetry), and the fifth movement “Suntory Dance” is a celebratory scherzo providing some respite.

Japanese myself, my appreciation of this piece is probably more personal and emotional than that of the average Proms audience. I found it dark and probing; not a straightforward consolation but a multi-faceted exploration of a collective sense of loss. The music is not programmatic in particular and the three Japanese texts he has chosen for the vocal movements are not directly related to this Earthquake, but it is poignant and resonates with me strongly. Also Turnage hasn’t used any obvious Japanese instruments but strangely enough I felt some Japanese sounds in there.

Kazushi Ono © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Kazushi Ono
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

I found the second and sixth movements particularly moving. The second movement “Miyagi” begins like a solemn dirge, built on the semitonal suspension motif from Bach’s St John Passion, which then is suddenly broken by sharp, stabbing chordal outbursts, perhaps of rage. The movement gradually subsides into trembling motifs on the cellos. The sixth movement, set to a text from a famous Japanese bunraku play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, is a lyrical song of farewell with Mahlerian echoes. It was heart-renderingly sung by the mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, accompanied by cellos, basses, harps and the tolling of bells. Elsewhere, Turnage’s more familiar jazzy and jarring orchestral texture was evident in the first and fifth movements (including lots of tricky syncopated rhythms in the first), superbly performed by players of the BBCSO. In the fifth movement, Turnage’s version of Twinkle, twinkle, little star in Japanese, the children’s choirs sang with beautiful diction and purity. Although it is a specific memorial piece, it deserves to be performed in the future.

The Turnage work occupied the whole second half of the programme. Earlier, the concert opened with a shimmering and evocative rendition of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, where Michael Cox gave a delicate and nuanced solo. His tone is clear with restrained use of vibrato, which contrasted with a more seductive and dynamic clarinet solo from Richard Hosford. Ono brought out the orchestral colours with panache and it was beautifully paced.

Inon Barnatan © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Inon Barnatan
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Debussy was followed by Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto – always a crowd-pleaser at the Proms, as it was on this occasion with generous applause after each movement. However, I found that Inon Bartanan’s playing didn’t project enough in the Royal Albert Hall. He played quite freely with a nonchalant air, and while his fast fingerwork was impressive, his sound didn’t have the core depth and even from the front of the Stalls Circle I struggled to hear him at times when he was playing with the tutti. He was quite spontaneous and playful in his solo moments but they felt detached from the larger structure of the concerto and it seemed that Ono was having to work hard trying to keep the whole thing together. At times the orchestral playing even felt sluggish. After the concerto, Bartanan offered an encore – Mendelssohn’s bravura piece Rondo Capriccioso. It certainly highlighted his sparkling fingerwork as well as his vivacious and light-hearted musicality, but I couldn’t help feeling it was out of place in the larger scheme of the evening’s programme.

***11