Events like The Bear Goes Walkabout are premonitions of the future of British classical music. A rallying like this of two organisations (the Melos Sinfonia and the Helios Chamber Opera) dedicated to promoting young talent is something to be excited about: our music is in their hands.
And what capable hands they are. The two world premieres that comprised the first half of this event indicate that composition rooted in the classical tradition has yet to go stale. Joel Rust and Philip Ashworth are postgraduate composition students, studying at elite institutions under prestigious teachers, with many years of classical training behind them. They belong to the breed of contemporary composer that rejects the heavy tide of electronic and digital music in favour of traditional orchestration, whilst embracing the difficulties of modernist aesthetics. This is troubled and dissonant music, but the influence of the canon is still reassuringly audible.
Rust’s Red as Blood is the more difficult of the two. Constantly shrugging off metrical and tonal stability, Rust’s music gets at the dark, mysterious core of the Icelandic tale behind his libretto and adds new layers of discomfort and intrigue. The stately, processional exit is a fascinating resolution to a tale about bitter feuds fuelled by blood. Ashworth’s Bare is more recognisably a direct result of being immersed in the European classical tradition, and is perhaps the more accomplished of the two. The orchestration is superb, combining lyrical solos with tutti aggression (his RCM Doctoral profile involves ‘investigating large-scale musical architecture’, and it shows).
William Walton’s ‘The Bear’ is a little-known short opera based on Chekhov’s play, and provided the humour necessary to counterpoint the darkness of the first half. The singers, expertly accompanied by the Melos Sinfonia under Oliver Zeffman, deal with this troublesome music with remarkable character and dexterity, whilst Ella Marchment’s direction is subtle but accomplished and creative.
However, there was a problem that threatened to undermine these achievements: the stage and its relation to the audience. A gap of several metres put even the front row fairly far away from the action – those at the back would have witnessed little. And with one half of the orchestra crossing and obscuring one half of the stage, and a lack of levels on which the singers could make themselves apparent, it was occasionally difficult to follow what the characters were doing. But this may well have been the only option: being held inside a church, the opportunities to rearrange seating and stage were probably limited.
The Melos Sinfonia and Helios Sinfonia are two collectives that should be closely observed. Despite some problems with staging, this was an evening of exceptional young musicians playing the music of exceptional young composers. The lengthy applause, so beloved of the classical music audience, was unusually well deserved.