Arlene Sierra’s music is performed more in her native USA than in the UK where she now lives. Let's hope this is about to change because the first performance of her Nature Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Ludovic Morlot gave us an intriguing and enjoyable work.

Arlene Sierra
© Ian Phillips-McLaren

The three movements of Sierra’s Symphony have subtitles. The first is Mountain of Butterflies. According to the programme notes this refers to the “site in Mexico where monarch butterflies complete their migration and form a literal mountain of beautiful ancient insects”. In it the composer builds on an earlier piece, her piano trio entitled Butterflies Remember a Mountain. From the opening notes a remarkable sound-world is created with a large orchestra often being handled very delicately. Moments with piano and harp glistening over a large body of shimmering strings were particularly striking.

The second movement is entitled The Black Place (after O’Keefe) referencing the work by American painter Georgia O’Keefe of black hills in New Mexico. This atmospheric and often hypnotic movement made me think of some Bartók’s "night music". Bee Rebellion refers to the behaviour of bees in a hive and to game theory. Listeners aware of this might expect something dauntingly intellectual, but instead we had a build-up of melodic fragments with the focus shifting from one group of instruments to another – and some bee-like buzzing.

I am somewhat sceptical of the evocation or representation of the human or natural world in music but for me the Nature Symphony was memorable for its creation of wonderful sounds from a large orchestra, ever–changing rhythms (the composer is a trained dancer), ear-catching snatches of melody, contrasts of mood and a feeling that it all came together as a satisfying whole as a symphony should.

The orchestra was joined by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet for Bartók’s Piano Concerto no 1. As instructed by the composer, the percussion was placed at the front of the stage beside the piano, making for a visual treat as well as highlighting the crucial rule that percussionists play in this concerto. Bavouzet gave a bravura account of the demanding and percussive solo part and clearly had a great rapport with conductor and orchestra. He could often be seen exchanging looks and smiles with other players. Bartók's is a dazzling concerto with brilliant unexpected timbres and changes of mood. In the first movement the soloist often took the role of adding texture to the orchestra rather than being separate from it though when he was given prominence Bavouzet sparkled. The start of the slow second movement is one of the many remarkable things in this concerto: a piano solo punctuated only by percussion until the woodwind join in. The third movement is exuberant and aggressive with many rhythmic surprises, as well as opportunities for the pianist to shine, which Bavouzet seized upon with gusto, leading to an exhilarating conclusion.

Dvořák’s sound-world is much more familiar to us now but no less individual than those of Sierra and Bartók and must have been quite startling to his first audiences. His Symphony no. 8 in G major formed the second half of the concert. He left no clues as to any extramusical significance of his work but it has often been associated with nature and so there was a nice balance with Sierra's work. Right from the opening cello melody the symphony was lovingly shaped by Morlot who brought out the contrasting moods of this gloriously melodic work. The memorable tunes conceal the rigorous structures that the composer employs to guide the listener through this most lovable of symphonies. If the scene is of nature, then it is not all sunshine: there is a lot of tension, especially in the first two movements, with perhaps the threat of thunder nearby. And it is not a landscape without people: there are reminiscences of the Slavonic Dances. The exuberant finale brings the symphony to a wonderful conclusion. Throughout there were very fine solos from the orchestral players and the whole cello section were given a much deserved bow at the end.

All in all, a very satisfying concert. I am looking forward to hearing it again when it is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 1st December.