The worlds of Messiaen and Volans are surprisingly close. Both are profoundly influenced by the natural world, both use similar types of material (essentially static harmonically), both manipulate blocks to create tension and movement, both have keen ears for kaleidoscopic colouring, both revel in hard-edged, punchy rhythms. If Messiaen conjures up the colourful plumage and exotic sounds of some verdant, chattering rain forest, Volans seems drawn to the wide-open plains of his native South Africa.
The new Volans is in a single movement lasting some 20 minutes and requiring a large wind band of 22 players, three double-basses (a la Mozart or Dvorak) and two percussion. The pianist is treated not so much as a soloist as an ensemble member. Textures are transparent, the piano often playing in octaves or tracing delicate filigree patterns. African rhythms and sounds (thumb piano in particular) permeate the score, but Volans has assimilated these native influences to provide a remarkable music that compromises neither his roots nor his Western training. Peter Donohoe, a pianist whose playing can be percussive, was an ideal soloist in both works.
In between came two great octets. Mozart's sublime C minor Serenade, K388, offered a complete change of mood after the Messiaen: a little night music performed with the most exquisite musicianship. Stravinsky's Octet added spice and wit, with breathtaking playing from a pair of chattering bassoons.
After such a cherishable evening, who can the BBC possibly have had in mind as an audience for its Bank Holiday Monday "family concert"? An all 20th-century programme, including one world premiere, hardly seemed likely to draw the punters and their little ones; indeed, they stayed away in droves. And why, in an age when "presentation" seems to dominate the airwaves, was there no attempt to tell the kids in the hall what was going on?
I took an intelligent 10-year-old, bound for Eton, who had never been to a concert before: he was not only bored out of his box but, I suspect, put off going to another concert for some time. Didn't he like anything? Only "the composer's hair-style" - by which he meant the conductor, Jerzy Maksymiuk, who does bear a passing resemblance to Wurzel Gummidge.
Walton may have written Portsmouth Point in his youth but it's unlikely to arrest an audience of 10-year-olds; the BBC Scottish gave it a routine reading. Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije, with its nonsense story, could have offered enormous potential to the youngsters, had there been anyone to explain the nonsense to them. Perhaps the presence of Evelyn Glennie, crashing the hell out of a lot of drums, was meant to be the appeal. But in David Horne's percussion solo Reaching Out she didn't crash, she just exhibited her virtuosity in a rather nonchalant way.
That virtuosity was fully tested in Geoffrey Burgon's new City Adventures for solo percussion and orchestra. A substantial and effective piece, it has her playing standard-ish jazz kit in Part 1, marimba / vibraphone in Part 2, and dashing betweeen the two sets of instruments in Part 3. Like Copland's Rodeo, which ended the concert, it would make a great dance score. But, alas, this concert was a wasted opportunity.Reuse content