Review: BBC NOW – Simon Holt’s The Yellow Wallpaper
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre
Tuesday 29th October 2013
A welcome return to Thierry Fischer, BBC NOW's previous Principal Conductor from 2006 to 2011. His introduction to the music of Messiaen is one thing I will always thank him for, since I regard the composer as one of my most astounding discoveries in all art. We didn’t really want him to leave us in Cardiff, but with our dashing new Danish maestro, we don’t want to say we have forgotten him just yet.
So, I had wondered when we would get to finally hear the world premier of Simon Holt’s The Yellow Wallpaper, since it was postponed last year due to Lisa Milne falling ill. Such is the singing role, she would have found it too much and yet still performed it that same concert for Mahler’s 4th Symphony. Strange but she still gave an intense singing performance.
Based on the novella by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it tells of a nameless woman who has postnatal depression and is incarcerated in a room filled with supposedly calming coloured walls. It proves to do the opposite and only heightens here mania. I have yet to read this (and now want to), but its sounds like a chilling read. Perhaps one for our Reading Power Book Club?
This concert had an attentive audience with a flurry of music students, who were ready to knuckle down to some brave new music. Holt, who is never afraid to write music he really wants to, has created a work that does goes under the skin and complements the subject matter very well. What could go better to madness than atonal and chromatic music? It opened brilliantly with two percussionists actually tearing rolls of wallpaper and was heard again later in the work. I was handed a copy of the score for keeps by the BBC NOW gang, and I have revelled over it, even if I can’t read music.
Holt asks that the wallpaper ripping sounds be slightly amplified, the same for a twig. The soprano may use a metronome for relief in one of the scenes. The choir of six female singers should also be scattered within the orchestra (not a cello in sight in this work, I might point out). The three percussionists should be spread about also. All these requirements are what today’s composers can ask for and indeed get away with.
By doing this, it was also a piece of theatre and this could work very well on the stage (I picture a box set with mouldy yellow wallpaper and a bloodied bed). Elizabeth Atherton as ‘Woman’ sang firmly, meticulously and with a sensitive delirium, the likes of which I was not expecting. She hums, grunts, whispers and does all sorts of vocal delights. I am most content that I finally got to hear this and hope to hear more of Holt’s brutal, visceral yet redeeming compositions.
The before and after of this work was Berg’s Violin Concerto and Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony. The concerto is a curious one, famously dedicated ‘to an angel’. The angel in question being the child of Alma Mahler (eventually wife of composer Gustav Mahler) and composer Zemlinksy. This is an atonal concerto and this is most evident in the also famous opening bars for the soloist. The violin just basically lingers up and down some notes, thus commencing Berg’s attack on the concerto form. This can be a paralysing work. Baiba Skride, who I know is a momentous player, handled this work with gripping ferocity and cold handed techniques (to aid the music).
Schmidt’s Symphony was the lowest part of the evening. What could have made up the last part of a concert that was heavy on the Avant-Garde music of today and years gone by? This was rousing yet nothing to get too excited about. You reach a point where you were here so many symphonies; you simply just don’t know how to compare one from the other. On a rare chance does one truly stand out and make me rave about it and praise it.
[Image credit: Kiran Ridley of BBC]