Classical review: BBC SSO/Volkov, Glasgow

Saturday’s BBC SSO Hear and Now concert, under Ilan Volkov’s direction, transported us to a musical twilight zone. Was it classical? Prog rock? Some form of esoteric crossover?

Ilan Volkov directed the BBC SSO. Picture: TSPL
Ilan Volkov directed the BBC SSO. Picture: TSPL

BBC SSO/Volkov - Tramway, Glasgow

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Personally, I found its focus on three distinctive American-based musical voices – saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, electric guitarist Fred Frith and multimedia exponent George Lewis – to represent an intellectual hybrid, borne out of their noted reputations as improvisational thinkers, experimenters and practitioners.

Such commonality was epitomised in the trio improvisation that kicked off the second half. Frith, formerly of experimental rock band Henry Cow, is no conventional guitarist, strumming the strings with paintbrushes, striking them with beaters, effectively using his instrument as a timbral paintbox.

Mitchell’s saxophone style is nebulously virtuosic. Lewis, manically switching between purple trombone and table- top electronic components, was the mover and shaker in an improvisation that grew purposefully from its stabbing elemental beginnings.

When it came to their orchestral works, the results were mixed. Mitchell’s umpteenth reworking of Nonaah, originally written in 1971 for solo saxophone, and premiered here in its orchestral version, seemed uncomfortable in its handling of the orchestral palette, an inconsistency emphasised by the often soulless, old-fashioned modernism of its musical language.

Frith’s The Right Angel had the trappings of an anti-concerto, determined to sublimate the ego of the solo electric guitar, but frustrating us in the process.

Lewis’s Memex, for orchestra, by far the most confident piece of orchestral writing, was pungent, colourful and dynamic. This was a strangely unhinging evening littered with many thought-provoking moments.

Seen on 21.02.14