Review,A Little Night Music, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Hoddinott Hall by James Ellis


I would finally return to see our National Orchestra, with their homestay concerts now at their base down Cardiff Bay. St David’s Hall wont open its doors for another year at least and it’s great to see the players where they live once again.

The concert title of A Little Night Music would suggest at the very least a billing of Mozart, yet he was no where to be seen. This was a more adventurous fit with a world premiere from Irish composer Stephen McNeff with The Celestial Stranger. With poems by Walt Whitman, Dylan ThomaS and Hawian queen Lili’uokalani, with a focus on the discovery of verse by Thomas Traherne, a clergyman and mystic this was the foundation. The theme is a traveller from beyond the stars and tries to navigate our own world. Here, with the evocative tenor Gavan Ring, the songs were strange, developing more character as each went on. With nods to Britten, this setting held up as evocative and weirdly sensual. Always a pleasure to hear newly commissioned work.

Fauré was the first composer to set music to the play Pelléas et Mélisande. This alluring story sees tragedy and allusion in equal measure. Fauré recycled other pieces for the rushed play opening in London, this being the incidental music. In these sequences there is the light air he is known for, sweet and touching, very French. Debussy handled the story best with his opera, the watery scope a landmark of its era. Several composers wrote music inspired by the story, yet I’m sure Fauré is the least interesting of the lot.

It has been 150 years since the birth of Arnold Schoenberg which might see many concert goers terrified at the prospect of listening to him live. In what is a safe bet, his Verklärte Nacht or Transfigured Night is a wonderful gateway. No one would be offended by this early composition, it is later in his life he created the infamous serialism technique. Originally for sextet, this lush, larger string ensemble bring to life the verse of Richard Dehmel, seeing a couple in the forest face their troubles and realisation of commitment to one another. This is quite splendid really. The harmonies are just right, some ornaments and tricks also feature. The players here oozed a loving determination. The piece shone, vigorous conductor Jac van Steen blowing a chef’s kiss as ever at the finish, this time heart felt. Those doubting the Austrian composer’s style should consider Verklärte Nacht as a starting point. You might just be surprised.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and then available on BBC Sounds in July 2024. It will also be filmed for future release in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales Digital Concert Series.

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