By any reckoning some smaller countries are punching well above their weight, at least musically: Estonia and Latvia in terms of the world class musicians they produce, or Finland with its seemingly endless talent shed of conductors. And then there is Iceland. With a population of not much more than a third of a million, it has its own symphony orchestra playing in its own spanking hall, a clutch of instrumentalists making waves on the world’s stage, and composers with teeming inspiration like Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Whatever do they put in the water?

Dalia Stasevska
© Mark Allan | Barbican

In this performance of Dreaming, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska, there was nothing much that suggested the Land of Nod. To be sure, the rustling at the start from the strings, followed by flecks of colour from wind, brass and percussion, could almost have been an evocation of winter woodlands. However, very soon this atmospheric piece moved onto an ineluctable trajectory of dolour and desolation, eruptions issuing forth from the bass drum and heavy brass chorales picking up and intensifying the sense of unease. The music is fundamentally unsettling and disorienting, not least for the orchestra since the composer specifically directs the conductor to dispense with any beat and to shape the direction of travel through presence alone. I had the distinct impression at one point that the earth was moving from beneath me. A fine epilogue from the solo cello, its contribution as much percussive as expressive, did little to restore equilibrium.

Davóne Tines and the BBC SO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

In Concerto no. 1: SERMON – A devised concerto for voice and orchestra, here receiving its live world premiere, the composer and performer Davóne Tines challenges concepts of societal order based on the existing colour principle. In essence this has the makings of a black oratorio: three texts by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and a specially commissioned piece from jessica Care moore are interspersed with instrumental interludes by John Adams, Igee Dieudonné and Anthony Davis. Whether in the aria “Shake the Heavens” from El Niño, where Tines’ warm and vibrant bass-baritone cut through to the quick, or in his poignant recitation of moore’s poem his passionate commitment to the cause of equality was never in doubt.

Dalia Stasevska conducts the BBC SO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Stasevska was also not in the business of offering much warmth and consolation. In her reading of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor, the message seemed to be almost one of bitterness and anger at being marooned in the New World. Stasevska certainly likes a big roar from the brass. If Richard Strauss had been in the audience, there would have been more than just a raised eyebrow at the way this section often dominated proceedings. The steel-edged strings in the opening movement, which had quite a bit of con fuoco about it, signalled the overall sharpness to the interpretation.

Stasevska is quite a bundle of energy on the podium, both arms stabbing and scything the air with explosive force, and at one level she certainly conveyed the exuberance and vitality of spirit in the score. She had the strings shimmering quite softly in the Largo and the cor anglais solo from Ben Marshall had the right amount of soulfulness to it. Yet she has a tendency to rush her fences inordinately, most obviously in the coda to the first movement which ended in a rush of breathlessness. Even before that the second subject had not allowed for much relaxation and later, both in the Scherzo and Trio, the woodwind, which are always important in this composer’s overall design, were hardly given room to breathe. Bohemian charm and nobility of phrasing? Nil returns here.

***11