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A Blazing Welsh Rare Bit

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
10/01/2008 -  & Oct. 2, 2008
Johann Sebastian Bach : Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 in D Major, BWV 1050
Bernard Rands : Chains Like The Sea (World Premiere)
Peter Tchaikovsky : Suite Number 3 in G Major, Opus 55

Anna Rabinova (Violin), Sandra Church (Flute), Lionel Party (Harpsichord)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Conductor)

Lorin Maazel (© Chris Lee)

The Yorkshire-born, Welsh-dwelling, American citizen Bernard Rands is performed all too rarely these days, yet he is a most intriguing composer, and a world premiere by him last night was a cause to celebrate.

Now 74, Mr.Rands has mastered many schools of music, from the serial to the diatonic, but his compositions—like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Canti del sole—have always possessed a lyricism, high emotion, a thrilling sense of orchestral color, and an almost subconscious homage to literature and his places of residence.

In last night’s 20-minute work, it was Wales, specifically the Wales of Dylan Thomas, who died—who could believe it?—54 years ago. Yet Mr. Rand is no versifier. His own graphic description reflects on different lines of Thomas. They could be relevant, but the music itself has a framework, a series of sounds, and feelings which stand by themselves.

In a way, the title itself is a practical joke to those who don’t know the poet. “Chains Like The Sea” sounds like a maritime imprisonment, yet it is taken from totally different lines by Thomas: To wit:

“ time held me green and dying
though i sing in my chains like the sea.”[

Mr. Brand “sings” with a series of bells here, bells which multiply, are faintly dissonant, are reflected by the orchestra, which accelerates in the first movement to a series of great orchestral climaxes. The second movement begins with tempered haste, but this leaves some spacious areas where the horns and trumpets can swoon up with some stentorian themes.

Musically, Chains Like The Sea owes as much to Béla Bartók as Dylan Thoma. The first bell-and-harp notes allow the orchestra to swirl around , like the Concerto For Orchestra in almost giddy movements. Were one to picture it, the sounds would be from egrets and seagulls on the southern tip of Wales. But Mr. Brand is not after that. The giddying sounds increases as the bell sounds increase—not in volume but in depth.

Here, he also follows a Bartók idiom, the Fibonacci series of multiplying sounds. The Hungarian never quite admitted to this, but his maturing of cells has the organic life of a flower, upon which the Fibonacci series is based.

Bur we listeners shouldn’t be aware of that, and even Mr. Brand confesses that it only forms the “framework” of his piece. Whatever that framework, Chains Like The Sea has a constant movement: something is always happening in the orchestra. Strings reverberate around wind songs, brasses blaze out Mahler style but are soon hushed by other instruments.

Mathematical series apart, the beauty of Chains Like The Sea has an organic unblossoming of its own. I would so much love to hear it again, since so much is happening. Not in a cluttered way, but a clear, even lucent way where the orchestra consistently surprises, where the sounds can offer avian memories but resist even the hint of the onomatopoeic.

The work was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and conductor Maazel taking special care over the difficult score. Then again, after a rather stodgy Brandenburg Concerto—the exception being a thrilling long cadenza by Chilean harpsichordist Lionel Party—Chains Like The Sea was given a very special place.

I think that Dylan Thomas himself--whose adoration of words transcended mere meaning—would have baptized the tones of this orchestral piece. As do we all.

Harry Rolnick



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