The works of Matteo D’Amico – professor of composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia – are rarely performed in Britain, hence the handsome book extolling his prolific output which was thrust into the hands of critics at the world premiere of his ‘Flight from Byzantium’.
Facing us on stage was a formidable army: the London Philharmonic and its choir in full strength, the Hilliard vocal ensemble in the gallery, an oud-player and a dudukist on a dais, Omar Ebrahim ready to narrate into a microphone, a surtitle board in the heavens, and Vladimir Jurowski on the podium to whip things into line.
D’Amico’s piece took its title from a ‘New Yorker’ essay by Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky, which provocatively argued that Emperor Constantine’s creation of a capital on the Bosphorus paved the way for autocratic, absolutist Eastern attitudes which were to blight Western politics until the end of the Soviet empire. Ebrahim would read the essay, the Hilliards would sing Brodsky’s ‘Nativity Poems’ in Russian, the oud and duduk players would express the musical soul of the East, and – as the opening blast of medievalised Shostakovich intimated – the orchestra would play its guts out.
But this ‘cantata’ posed as big a challenge for the audience as for the performers, with Ebrahim hamming up Brodsky’s portentous prose accompanied by a thunder sheet, the Hilliards doing their Russian thing, the surtitles demanding constant attention, the oud and duduk adding their voices, and the orchestra delivering all the sound-effects in the book. Brodsky the poet constantly undercut Brodsky the historian with free-associations whose unintended comedy was reinforced by the orchestra. ‘Things fall, I gulp my beer, the fiddler goes away’, but not the lead violinist, who embarked on a busy solo. ‘And there is no wind’: cue a noisy brass fanfare. Twenty-three minutes have seldom seemed so interminable.
Since he co-commissioned this farrago, Vladimir Jurowski’s judgment in new music must be called into question, and by no means for the first time. Luckily he redeemed himself - and the orchestra - with brilliant accounts of Haydn’s 63rd symphony and Bartok’s ‘Miraculous Mandarin’. But the highlight of this oddly-constructed programme was the Hilliard’s a cappella rendering of three short masterpieces by the 15th century French composer Guillaume Dufay, wonderfully intricate and exquisitely sung. This saved the day.