Dress circle: closed. Upper circle: closed. Organ gallery: closed. Even in the stalls of the Usher Hall where the audience probably outnumbered the members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on the platform, it still felt a little like the tumbleweed was all but blowing down the aisles. Even by the standards of programmes of new music in Edinburgh, this was a poor house. More's the pity, since Ilan Volkov and the orchestra gave us rather a treat.
Much has been written, not least here, of the fine results one Donald Runnicles has been achieving with the BBC SSO lately, but it should not be forgotten that this was made possible by the fine work done by Volkov over the six years of his tenure. When it comes to new music, he is an excellent steward, the more so here with a series of works from Jonathan Harvey commissioned by him and the SSO.
The three compositions, with their Buddhist inspirations, all also neatly tie into the festival's eastern themes. Body Mandala, the first of the three pieces, though actually the second to be composed, was for me the most successful. It is influenced by purification rituals, featuring both calm and fierceness and, as Harvey puts it in his note:
The body, when moved with chanting, begins to vibrate and warm at different Chakra points and 'sing' internally - 'lit up' with sound,Certainly it was a vivid experience, from the superb undulating low brass which opened the piece to his varied and colourful percussion writing. So we were treated to everything from the wonderful effects of half a dozen percussionists working Tibetan ro-mo cymbals to splashing their hands in buckets of water (hopefully their scores had been waterproofed). What marks out the writing especially was that none of this felt gimmicky, as such a cornucopia of unusual instruments can in the wrong hands.
... towards the Pure Land, with which the concert closed, was nearly as fine. Here Harvey was attempting to capture, in his words:
A Pure Land is a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping. It has also been described in Buddhist literature as a landscape - a model of the world to which we can aspire.Here, as elsewhere in the evening, the influence of Messiaen seemed strong, especially his masterpiece Des canyons aux etoiles... This was true both in his use of a variety of wind machines and also the way in which he layered the music as he seemed to search for some tranquil beyond. That said, Harvey very much has his own voice. At one moment, he dropped his forces down to a volume below a whisper and you could have heard a pin drop as the audience waited for the next glimpse of the Pure Land to emerge.
In between them came Speakings, the most recent of the pieces and the only one I've heard before (performed by the same team as last night). The most obvious, and indeed audible difference, is the presence of live electronics, provided by IRCAM. Looking back at my notes of that past concert, I don't feel that these elements were quite so well integrated this time - perhaps a consequence of the composer not being present this time (owing, unfortunately, to illness - we wish him a speedy recovery). While there were some very effective moments - a conversation the trombone had with itself, for example - at others it felt a little gimmicky, the baby noises especially. I am also not totally convinced how well it fits with the other two, which seemed concerned with things that couldn't be put into words. That said, the piece provided one of the evening's most stunning moments: a magnificent Messiaenic climax that occurs midway through (which one member of the audience mistook, perhaps understandably, for the end).
It was a superb performance from the BBC SSO under Volkov, marked by both exceptional playing and tight direction. It was a real shame there were not more people there to witness it. Why not? Well, as I've said, new music rarely gets a good audience in Edinburgh. In addition, as suggested by violinist David Chadwick, it doubtless didn't help that another triptych, the festival's series of films with Philip Glass's score performed live, was kicking off at the same time. Surely this was a clash that should have been avoided.
However, it seemed to us that there was another problem. This was advertised in the programme as nearly two hours of new music. Played as it was without an interval, an excellent artistic decision that enhanced the experience, it was more like one. Had it been sold at, say, 10pm for £5 a ticket in the manner of the sadly long dead Royal Bank Lates, I think it might have managed a better audience. A full evening of modern music at full price is a pretty intimidating prospect for some. An hour for a fiver would surely rank more in the 'what have I got to lose category'; more people might be tempted to have a punt. It might perhaps have pulled some more of the fringe audience too (as some of the Lates seemed to). Certainly I think it underscores that arts organisations need to be a little more creative with these sorts of programmes.
The concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 in due course. In the meantime, London audiences (and indeed, anyone who can listen to Radio 3) will have the chance to hear this team at the Proms on Thursday with a new concerto by Thomas Larcher and Bruckner's 5th symphony. Having heard the 2nd and 9th from this team, I can strongly recommend it.