When I was teaching (a lifetime ago), I had the responsibility for selecting the classical music that was played as the children silently filed into and out of assembly. Daring to push the envelope, one week I chose Philip Glass’ relatively recent Violin Concerto. It was a hit. At least three of my pupils (8-9 year-olds) even pestered their parents to buy the disc. Glass’ Aguas da Amazonia had a similar effect.

Mari Samuelsen
© BBC | Mark Allan

How to explain the music’s instant appeal? I put it down to the catchy percussion ostinatos in the concerto’s outer movements, or the violin’s repeated arpeggios, chugging away in their hypnotic loops and spirals. It’s music that still appeals, both to me and to the large audience that gathered in the Queen Elizabeth Hall where Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen performed it with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the headline act in a programme of four works by contemporary composers. 

The Violin Concerto no. 1 was Glass’ first foray into more traditional concert music. It was composed in 1987, four years after his opera Akhnaten, and was written at the behest of conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who has since premiered almost all of Glass’ 14 (and counting) symphonies. It’s not virtuosic in the flashy way of a 19th-century concerto, but it needs huge reserves of stamina. Samuelsen, sporting white trainers, looked ready for the workout and, indeed, needed to mop her brow with a towel between movements. Maintaining very straight posture, her bowing arm wheeled away vigorously. Pumping iron must be a piece of cake compared to playing Glass arpeggios. Yet there are moments for the violinist to soar, and Samuelsen’s sweet tone allowed the music to float in the sighing central movement. 

Mari Samuelsen, Anna-Maria Helsing and the BBC Concert Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

The BBCCO conducted by Anna-Maria Helsing – and probably counting repeat bars furiously – were dutiful partners, although the percussion sounded tame in the motoric outer movements. But the concerto hit the spot, toes were tapped and a standing ovation duly followed. 

The concert opened with two short world premieres, each introduced by the composer from the stage. Liam Taylor-West’s Making Space explores how mathematical sequences can be extended by stretching them out and filling in the gaps. It sounded technical, but the music itself was bright, busy and rhythmic, upbeat in the style of Michael Torke. Electra Perivolaris’ A Forest Reawakens was even briefer – just four minutes – but demonstrated remarkable tone colours, especially in the strings, in a piece inspired by Gaelic Psalm-singing of her home on the Isle of Arran. 

Anna-Maria Helsing conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

Ever since Bartók in 1943, the Concerto for Orchestra has been a means of putting the different sections of an orchestra in the spotlight. We’ve catalogued 40 such works in our Bachtrack database, but I’m sure there are plenty more. Jennifer Higdon’s was composed in 2002 to showcase The Philadelphia Orchestra and, like Bartók, is in five movements. Helsing and the BBCCO hit the ground running in the energetic opening, but the pizzicatos in the Scherzo-like second lacked snap. The central movement gives the principals – even double bass and viola! – solos before each section takes a bow. After the mysterious bowed vibraphone and crotales that open the fourth movement, the percussion really found their groove. The percussion riffs in Shostakovich symphonies – the Fourth, the Fifteenth – and they have a sinister, toyshop-at-midnight quality. Higdon’s are metronomic, but more whimsical. The finale put the entire band through its paces, high octane stuff. Like the Glass concerto, Higdon’s music is immediately attractive and it deserves to be in a lot more orchestra’s concert programming.

***11