Is Edgard Varèse’s Amériques the most exciting musical achievement of the 20th century?
Born in 1883, the French composer created strange, timeless work that achieves a compelling balance between dissonance and melody, and continues to shape composers’ imaginations today. He also conceived of electronic music 50 years before it arrived.
Considered a visionary musical legend in his lifetime, Varèse was sought out by the avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa as a teenage fan, while jazz legend Charlie Parker asked him for lessons.
Southbank Centre’s Director of Music, Gillian Moore, considers his 1921 symphony Amériques the most significant piece of music of the last century, heralding a new age of machines.
‘...the clanking of overhead railways, the hooting of foghorns on the Hudson river, the wail of police sirens all find their way into this huge urban symphony. But, even with its super-size line-up (130 orchestral musicians), it's not all sound and fury: there are sinuous melodies, seductive jazz-tinged dances and a nod or two to Debussy and Stravinsky.’
Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, ‘the unstoppable and mesmerising music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’ (The Guardian) leads the orchestra in this extraordinary piece alongside a thorough overview of Varèse’s genius, from 1918 to 1961.
Prefaced by a quotation from 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus, Arcana, typically for Varèse, plays with repetitions of a fixed theme including a rising tritone also used in Intégrales (see Sunday’s concert).
The haunting Nocturnal for soprano, male chorus and orchestra, adapts text from Anais Nin’s The House of Incest in a sinister Dadaesque dreamscape: ‘Bread and the wafer / womb and seed and egg’.
Two surrealist poems by Mexican and Chilean writers are the foundation of Offrandes, for soprano and chamber orchestra, in which Varèse makes clear his debt to Debussy.
Dance for Burgess was originally conceived for a musical, while Tuning Up was written for a film but never used: it takes as its starting point the orchestra’s preparatory ritual at the beginning of a concert.
The evening culminates in a performance of Amériques. The last time the piece was performed in Royal Festival Hall, in 2010, The Observer hailed it as ‘ a ferocious masterpiece.’
Now in its centenary year, the internationally renowned City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was first conducted by Edward Elgar. The orchestra appear with Music Director Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, whom The Observer, in a five-star 2017 review, called ‘an irresistible new star.’
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