When you hear the music of Gloria Coates, and that’s a rare occasion indeed, there’s no escaping its striking originality. That much can resolutely be said about the 80-year-old Wisconsin composer, who has written 16 idiosyncratic symphonies in her lifetime, three of which were played in quick succession in Saturday’s Hear and Now concert by the BBC SSO.
As always, we had the ever-inquisitive conductor Ilan Volkov to thank for bringing the ultra-obscure to our doorstep, not to mention the obliging SSO, whose string section spent most of the night out of tune. This was deliberate, as Coates’ trademark sound world is one of dense microtonal washes that require the players to detune their instruments and to sound, as in the raw opening of the Eleventh Symphony, like a primary school orchestra meeting for the first time.
Coates’ achievement, albeit sporadic, is to find a way of moulding that naive primitivism into sophisticated structures that, at best, possess almost Promethean impact. The gathering storm of the First Symphony “Music for Open Strings”, a sustained crescendo effected by the players gradually tightening the bow hairs, was momentous. Its tune-as-you-go third movement, Scordatura, bore an unsettling fascination, like a mind-altering substance in musical manifestation. The middle movement of the Seventh Symphony, commemorating Cold War victims, was the evening’s unquestionable highlight, where Coates genuinely finds a sustained, lyrically-charged emotional voice.
Coates will forever remain a legitimate curiosity, but one that deserves selective airing. - Ken Walton