Review: Boos to the music of time

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

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits