This concert, given by the intrepid forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under conductor Matthew Coorey, was refreshing for offering repertoire not frequently performed and a context for a newly commissioned work.
Steve Reich’s 1995 City Life is a sonic tribute to his native New York, sampling the city’s overall clamour. Among the words and phrases integral to the fabric of the piece are those of firefighters responding to the abortive 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, now a chill pointer to what would be his WTC 9/11.
Given that George Gershwin’s car claxon in An American in Paris was one of the triggers for Reich’s use of sampled sounds, Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody – reflecting New York and originally titled Rhapsody in Rivets – was a neat pairing. Soloist Freddy Kempf was suitably flamboyant, but brought considerable delicacy to the piano’s quietly lyrical passages.
Colin Riley’s Hearing Places is a series of impressions of the Welsh landscape, using on-site recordings, and as such a counterpart to both the Reich and the Gershwin. Its seven movements represent an exhortation to listen, to relate fully with our environment before it’s too late; part of the deep conviction of Riley’s approach is as someone who creates work directly influenced by his own hearing impairment. Beginning with the clangour of Port Talbot steelworks, it included the pitter-patter of Dylan Thomas’s “pale rain” over the Taf estuary at Laugharne, fingers tapping rhythms on the wood of the stringed instrument, and later the furious clatter of Solva’s weaving mill. While the detail of the score underlined Riley’s acute sensibilities, it seemed ironic that the visual element, projecting images from the various locations and controlled by the keyboard sampler, felt an unnecessary distraction. The different bell-like chimes heard in Percy Grainger’s arrangement of La Vallée des Cloches from Ravel’s Miroirs which opened the evening finally had their echo in Riley’s last movement with its sampling of church bells from Ruthin. Their effect was at once celebratory and mournful.