B Tommy Andersson is a Swedish composer and conductor, who is currently the Composer in Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. His longstanding friendship with the orchestra’s principal conductor Thomas Søndergård is the origin of this appointment, and Andersson has also found time to work with student composers in Cardiff. This concert was designed as a composer portrait.

B Tommy Andersson © Peter Knutson
B Tommy Andersson
© Peter Knutson

Andersson’s music is large in scale and opulent in scoring. Apollo is a concerto for percussion intended as a representation of Apollo’s love for three young men: Cyparissus, Hyacinthus and Admetus. It only has brass parts for horn and trumpet, but amply makes up for this in the batterie de cuisine, which on the night was operated by Marcus Leoson, the virtuoso percussionist for whom this piece was written. Leoson stood in the midst of instruments ranging from the guiro (a ribbed hollow cylinder), Peking Opera gongs, almglocken and tuned crotales (suspended metal discs sometimes played with a pair of double-bass bows) to drums, cymbals, gongs and tambourines. A set of wood drums and wood blocks produced the most interesting timbres, with pitches arranged in a scale of wide intervals. Leoson whizzed around his kitchen, whipping up one ostinato after another, with the orchestra panting to keep up. This could well make up the score for an effective ballet; as it was, Leoson’s lively movements gave a thoroughly balletic impression.

Passacaglia was the first of two pieces in which Andersson leaned, perhaps too heavily, on the support of great composers of the past. The theme and 20 variations, taken from J S Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, BWV582, emerged in a scoring for vast orchestral forces, which included three trombones and a tuba, a piano, a celesta and a harp accompanying full wind and string sections. The variations moved further and further away from Bach’s marching bass line, and growing progressively harder to follow, with filigree string and wind figures obscuring the shape of the theme more often than they revealed it.

Death in Venice presented a similar problem of authorship. Here it was Wagner’s works which were heavily referenced, in particular with a series of turns including the one in Parsifal’s “Heilandsklage” motif, which in Andersson’s piece seemed to represent rippling lagoon water as Wagner himself lay dying. Heavy drum-beats (borrowed from Siegfried’s Funeral Music) punctuated the flow of rich orchestra sound, but the overwhelming effect was more soporific than mournful. Generally speaking, Andersson’s music works better when he uses his own voice and does not rely on the inspiration of others.

The final work of the programme was again balletic in its form and style. Warriors, published in 2010, is a 40-minute dramatic evocation of the Sacred Band of Thebes, 150 pairs of male lovers who were chosen for their fidelity and fierceness in battle. It called for similarly large orchestral forces to those in Andersson’s Passacaglia, with even more percussion brought into the mixture. Once again, ostinato figures provided much of the thematic material, and the different sections of the orchestra were each given opportunities to shine. Nonetheless, the overall effect was of a piece that would work better with dancers and a fully-choreographed scenario, and in a larger auditorium than Hoddinott Hall, whose acoustics make large orchestral forces sound painfully loud, rather than overwhelmingly impressive. Thomas Søndergård clearly has a great affection for Andersson’s music, but he only partly succeeded in communicating this to the audience in the hall. 

***11