Tonight’s RSNO concert is headlined by Vaughan Williams’ famous violin work, always a surefire way to bring in the crowds. However, the real headline tonight is a new work by Vaughan Williams. Or rather, a very old work begun in 1908, then abandoned until its recent completion by tonight’s conductor Martin Yates. Indeed, this is a world premiere of The Future which has attracted interest from all over the world.
The concert opens with another Vaughan Williams work, though – The Wasps, written for a Cambridge production of an Aristophanes play. It really does begin with a buzzing sound, produced by the strings of the orchestra, before going into more gentle music, including quotes from English folk music and other contemporary composers. It is succeeded by The Lark Ascending, which has become a concert favourite since it was premiered in 1921. Tonight, the RSNO’s leader Sharon Roffman plays the solo part, and she demonstrates what the composer said it was: ‘a romance for solo violin and small orchestra.’ The work begins very quietly, then the violin soars up the scales, simulating the lark soaring over the Surrey Hills where Vaughan Williams grew up. Roffman plays it with great delicacy. At times her violin almost disappears into the ether.
The first half of the concert concludes with a very different work, Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, written for Daighilev’s ballet in 1910. The story concerns a magic firebird that can make dreams come true. It is vivid, colourful and at times very loud. The orchestra under Yates’ baton play it with relish, with the brass and the drums having great fun.
After the interval the concert proceeds with Ravel’s gentle and melodic Pavane pour une infante defunte, written in 1910 and first performed in Manchester in 1911. Though it lasts only six minutes, it has always been a firm favourite with concert audiences.
The main work of the evening is the aforementioned newly completed The Future, a mighty choral work based on a Matthew Arnold poem, that itself is a wide ranging reflection on man and his future which uses lots of nautical metaphors. Around 33 pages of Vaughan Williams’ original work were found by Yates in the composer’s collection in the British Library. They comprise around two thirds of this piece, with Yates completing the rest using Vaughan Williams’ notes and musical narrative. Yates trained as a pianist and composer as well as a conductor and his previously Vaughan Williams work includes making the world premiere recording of his Scott of the Antarctic. Tonight, he not only has a very large RSNO at his command but over 100 members of the RSNO Chorus under the direction of Gregory Batsleer, the fine Russian soprano Ilona Domnich and the mighty Usher Hall organ.
Naturally, the questions everyone is asking are: ‘did it work and was it worth doing’?
The answer? It’s not perhaps in the front rank, but is nevertheless a very worthwhile addition to English choral works. The chorus, who are heavily involved, sound splendid, although Domnich‘s soprano is at times hidden either by the orchestra or the chorus. A question of balance of forces, perhaps? However, there’s no doubt that in the words of Martin Yates, ‘this music deserves to be heard.’