Wednesday, August 13, 2003


Violinist and composer Mark O'Connor gave a mesmerising performance as soloist in the world premier of his own Violin Concerto No 6 at the BBC Promenade Concerts on Monday night. Inspired by a South Carolina plantation design by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the three-movement work was written in 2002 and features three unlabelled movements. Its sub-title, 'Old Brass' is derived, rather evidently, from Auldbrass in Yemassee.

O'Connor has garnered a strong reputation as a fiddler in the American folk tradition. Strongly influenced by Stephane Grappelli, he has worked with Yo Yo Ma, Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg and Wynton Marsalis in his turn towards the classical tradition.

Careful scrutiny of 'Old Brass', performed superbly with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and directed by Kenneth Sillito, shows precisely why O'Connor is so difficult to label - though that didn't stop Stephen Pettitt in the London Evening Standard throwing 'fireside homeliness' and 'conservative reactionaryism' (sic) at it.

Scored for strings, flute, oboe, two bassoons and two horns, the concerto is gently remorseless in its pursuit of wispish and elusive melodies across a complex palette of contrapuntal playfulness and dense texture. Its surface is thoroughly tonal and rooted in the American folk tradition, which is presumably what gives rise to Pettitt's ill-judged put-downs. But though that (and the odd resemblances to Copland and Bernstein) may be the first word, it is certainly not the last.

Another strong element in O'Connor's blend is neo-classicism, which undoubtedly led to the decision to pair his new work with Bartok's 'Divertimento for Strings', performed with vigour, precision and enthusiasm by the very well resourced Academy.

Then again, there are broad hints towards chromaticism and the thick orchestral undergrowth of unrestrained modernism. Yet the overall impact is nothing like the portmanteau dilettantism that this range of influences may suggest.

In the fast outer movements the musicians were rapt in a complicated web of counterpoint and almost-repetition. O'Connor develops his themes both by leaps and lisps. The slow central movement contains some achingly beautiful, remorseful and yet fleetingly optimistic tunes, saved from the obvious by unexpected twists and ornaments.

Near the end of the work O'Connor handled an extensive unaccompanied solo with breathtaking aplomb and extraordinary technique. He is a remarkable yet unpretentious performer, and the applause from orchestra as well as audience was as genuine as it gets in a cynical old world.

No doubt some critics will dismiss O'Connor as an offshoot of the warmed over romanticism that has infected those sections of the 'classical' world disillusioned with both ascetic modernism and playful postmodernism. But if they do this, they haven't really listened. O'Connor's remains a distinctive and thoughtfully eclectic voice.

Equally distinctive, of course, is Krzystof Penderecki, whose 'Sinfonietta' (1990-91) began this fine concert. In the tradition of important, occasional string works going back particularly to the 'Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima' (1960), 'Sinfonietta' lasts just 12 minutes and consists of two movements, Allegro Molto and Vivace.

The work's structure has block-like elements at its core. There are Stravinskian flourishes and Romantic allusions as well as those loud, stabbing tuttis that begin, end and punctuate the work. Berg and Schoenberg are not very far away. Penderecki combines an extraordinary intensity with, at times, a surprising lightness of instrumental touch. 'Sinfonietta' is many miles away from the austere sound world of the 'Threnody', but in years to come it will carry the same degree of weight in the repertoire.

Overall, this was a wonderful concert in the best late night Prom traditions. Sillitto and the Academy performed with well-rehearsed dedication and flair. Only the size of the audience was (predictably) disappointing. Thank goodness for the wider impact of BBC Radio 3, therefore.

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