Birtwistle's Exody / Chicago SO

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Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new orchestral work, Exody, receives its European premiere this week from the orchestra which commis- sioned it: the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Any new work by perhaps our greatest living composer is eagerly anticipated. Exody is Birtwistle's first large-scale orchestral score since the Piano Concerto, Antiphonies, five years ago. And, as Birtwistle explains, it takes up where Antiphonies left off, for it "opens with that very same yawning span of register with which the concerto ended. The very high note, then given on the piano, is not possible from any orchestral instrument except the violin, so the flautists are called on to blow down some very narrow organ pipes I've had made."

Birtwistle now plots Exody as "the central panel of an orchestral triptych which began with Earth Dances and will conclude with a new piece."

Extremes of register, jarring shifts of dissonance, and huge blocks of sound have been hallmarks of the Birtwistle style - an on-going exploration of tradition and a penchant for novelty simultaneously. In Exody, something similar occurs: a sense of time being both eternally stated but also eternally disrupted. Time is a concept which interests the composer. He chose the archaic word Exody because "it alludes both to a way out and a way in". Exody also has a pertinent subtitle - "Sequence for 23:59:59", or "the second before midnight".

Is the beckoning new millennium also implied? "It's about leave-taking and points of transition in general, be that one day for the next, one year for the next, or one millennium for the next." Was he also thinking in terms of a post-modern summation opus? "Oh, I don't know about that... It's about continuity and change. But a summation? No, just another piece along the way."

While Birtwistle avoids opus numbers, Exody is actually Op 100. "That has a certain serendipity to it," comments the composer, as if he hadn't been counting. And isn't it fitting that, for a coincidentally "centennial" opus, he has produced a major orchestral showpiece? "It's orchestral," he states, bluntly. "`Major' is not for me to say. Showpiece? There are flashier works in the repertoire. But the Chicago certainly do it well. And I'm very keen to hear how it will sound in the Albert Hall." And so are we.

Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) 3 Sept, 7.30pm

Duncan Hadfield