Proms Premiere: Powers Symphony No 1 BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka RAH, London / Radio 3

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The Independent Culture
Webern wrote one, Debussy didn't. Composing symphonies, it seems, is less about being tonal than simply having the proper frame of mind. From the strength of his chamber and orchestral pieces, Anthony Powers, born in 1953, has always been a likely candidate for performing the symphonic act, although he's deferred his debut even longer than Brahms. Thanks to a commission from the David James Music Trust, however, a genuine urge has been turned into reality: Powers's First Symphony, in progress since 1994, was premiered at Monday night's Prom by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.

A big work in four movements, it adds greatly to Powers's name, being a symphony in manner as well as title. Like the German composer Detlev Glanert, whose Third Symphony was heard some weeks ago, he has a sure sense of where the music's going, and of laying clues, detective-fiction style, that influence the flow of events. He also knows how to bring a movement to a close; though ideas were freely swapped between movements, there was none of that blending of fast and slow episodes in a single arch of form that so many composers find attractive. Indeed, the most disappointing part was the bridging music between the scherzo and slow third movement, a gesture made in admiration of the same gambit in Elgar's First Symphony, but lacking in the creative necessity of the original.

Elsewhere, Powers lived up to his ideal of working with the friendly ghosts of tradition, using time-honoured thematic and motivic ingredients. A quiet interlude of tolling bells and sinking sounds for piccolo and basses surely told of some personal experience translated into music. Yet, by and large, the material and how it was used maintained an abstract discourse; abstract not in terms of plainness, but simply in its lack of reference to external, programmatic stimuli.

The clever structure of the first movement, four refrains and two groups of ideas getting longer and shorter in inverse relation, had rich potential for further development. There was some nicely turned writing for saxophone. The finale, described as a "colour fugue", showed a fine ear for sound, though its attempts at affirmation through a breathless type of fast music lacked real pace. The problem of writing convincing finales is perennial. Though one of the less friendly ghosts of tradition, it's a spectre that every symphonist must face.

Takemitsu's Star-Isle and Respighi's Pines of Rome were an excellent choice of companion pieces as examples of non-symphonic composition. The orchestra gave a thrilling account of the Respighi, brashly pictorial, solo trumpet ringing out from the back of the hall. The Takemitsu, a kind of Japanese L'Apres-midi d'un faune, wove a very different magic with its echoes of Delius and Messiaen emerging from a veil of silence. Young Leif Ove Andsnes played Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto with the kind of natural brilliance that can be so wounding to frustrated amateur pianists twice his age.

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