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In Brief: The New York Philharmonic's "Variations on a British Theme"

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The New York Philharmonic’s weeklong Variations on a British Theme celebration unfortunately coincided with the Kirov visit, but those who cared could catch the final event, an afternoon concert of chamber music featuring recent works by English composers. Right now, the contemporary-music scene in Britain is lively, diverse, and much discussed -- if only it were possible to say the same about new-music trends here, despite our composers’ desperate attempts to be accessible at all costs. Two young British talents are riding especially high at the moment: Thomas Adès, only 27 and already proclaimed England’s most versatile and precocious composer since Benjamin Britten; and Mark-Anthony Turnadge, eleven years older than Adès and whose works are mainly characterized by their confrontational, in-your-face ferocity.

It therefore came as no surprise to find Turnadge addressing the subject of murder in his 30-minute monodrama Twice Through the Heart, reflections from a woman who has killed her husband after long periods of violent abuse. Turnadge embroiders Jackie Kay’s unflinchingly direct text with a declamatory vocal line that is musically involving, emotionally true, and lyrically expressive, effectively bolstered by a battering accompaniment that shows a keen ear for instrumental color and dramatic pacing. It’s a powerful piece, and Mary Phillips gave a riveting account of it. After hearing a dozen or so scores by Adès, I find the praise lavished on him back home rather extravagant, even if his compositional talent is undeniable. The prodigy himself was on hand to play his cleverly spaced-out piano piece, Traced Overhead, and the terse Concerto Conciso. Both are ear-catching and well made, but neither proclaims the arrival of a staggeringly original genius; hype from Britain’s overeager musical Establishment should continue to be carefully monitored.


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