Classical: Sir Harrison Birtwistle premiere Symphony Center, Chicago, USA
Classical: Sir Harrison Birtwistle premiere

Symphony Center, Chicago, USA

Hecklers are everywhere. Well, a few booers. Nevertheless, it was a shameful reception to a persuasive first performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under its music director Daniel Barenboim, of a new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

Receiving its premiere in Chicago last Thursday (with repeat performances on Friday and Saturday - oh, the luxury of subscription series!), Exody was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, an orchestra with an impressive record of recent commissions: Sir Michael Tippett's Byzantium (1991), Luciano Berio's Continuo (1993), Elliott Carter's Partita (1994).

Exody is a massive orchestral score that follows closely the line of Birtwistle's previous large-scale orchestral works, The Triumph of Time (1972) and Earth Dances (1986). At 30 minutes' duration, it is 10 minutes longer than The Triumph of Time but 10 minutes shorter than Earth Dances. The effect is of greater focus.

Subtitled "23:59:59", Exody suggests a leaving: the last second before the following day; a journey into that day; the day of the new Millennium.

Birtwistle admits to an obsession with time - many of his works have explored the nature of time, chronologically and psychologically. But how does musical form work in time? In a packed pre-concert talk, Birtwistle, in avuncular form, explained how "classical" pieces that begin and end in the same key are circular in time.

Birtwistle has, of course, never used this structural means. With almost a sense of sorrow, he admits that he cannot help those people who depend on tonal circles. But he speaks of melodies, melodies that go for linear walks, walks that are always journeys, journeys that are always endless. Baffling stuff, perhaps, for your average audience.

Exody, which is dedicated to the late Sir Michael Tippett, is scored for large orchestra emphasising percussion, high winds and low brass. Two saxophones and two tubas add to the Birtwistle sound, a sound so unlike any other composer's but instantly recognisable as his own. Unusually, there is a greater dependence on string sound - the high harmonics of the violins that begin and end the work are particularly striking ... and painful.

The writing vividly recalls earlier works, chamber works like Secret Theatre and Ritual Fragment. Exody, in fact, begins by taking the end of Birtwistle's last orchestral work, the piano concerto Antiphonies (1993). Using the widest spacing of the octave C, Exody creeps in imperceptibly, deathly, slow, hesitant - a groping exploration into dark places.

Melancholy, that familiar mood in Birtwistle's work, is never far away; long, slow arching phrases move in apparently unrelated layers against sharp, punctuating punches of sound from the wind and percussion. A soprano and alto saxophone crawl out of the texture; a diaphanous string sound is chopped off by chattering brass, swirls of wind, collisions of change.

Exody is a demanding listen, a great slab of time exposed like an inert sculpture, but moments of beatific calm - a plaintive cor anglais, a keening flute, magical percussion tinklings, a solo cello - bring solace in a shattered soundworld.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave an accurate first performance. The confidence and fluency were astonishing - Birtwistle tossed off as mother's milk. Barenboim's sense of pacing in this huge dramatic canvas appeared faultless.

Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony was an unlikely companion to such a premiere, but none the less illuminating; the contrast of worlds is in the sound; the mood prevails. Barenboim here conducted a marvellously humane performance, making the most of contrasts in tempi and dynamic - the first movement allegro vivo arrived like a shotgun.

Plans are afoot for the Chicago Symphony to bring the Birtwistle to the Proms this summer. Hecklers be warned: Exody is no Panic.

Annette Morreau