Music review: BBC SSO: Conquest of the Useless, City Halls, Glasgow

The BBC SSO gave an impassioned world premiere performance of David Fennessy’s reaction to Herzog’s iconic film Fitzcarraldo, writes Ken Walton

BBC SSO: Conquest Of The Useless, City Halls, Glasgow ****

David Fennessy’s lavish Conquest Of The Useless was long in the making – as was Werner Herzog’s epic 1982 adventure film Fitzcarraldo and the subsequent documentary of the film’s production that inspired this stand-alone musical trilogy. These threads came together on Saturday in the UK premiere of a work that began life a decade ago, consuming Fennessy’s creative thoughts for years after.

Following a screening of Les Blank’s documentary and a live panel discussion, the BBC SSO and conductor Jack Sheen unleashed a 70-minute concert piece as extravagant as Herzog’s film. The latter centres on a man devoured by a vision to create an opera house in the heart of the Amazon jungle; Fennessy’s music is both a reaction to, and absorption of, that obsessive theme.

David Fennessy PIC: Thomas ButlerDavid Fennessy PIC: Thomas Butler
David Fennessy PIC: Thomas Butler
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Involving a speaker (actor Brian Ferguson), singer (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston), computer performer Peter Dowling, and the composer himself on electric guitars, its three components – Prologue, Caruso and "Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the Moon” – are more sensory reaction than cinematic narrative.

At its heart is a visceral compulsion, voiced variously in expressionist and impressionist terms but with an ardent undercurrent of romanticised freedom. Fennessy draws immediately on Verdi’s Rigoletto in the opening Prologue, a thunderingly dense chord from which further quotes and an exquisite counterpoint of Amazonian sound pictures interweave.

In Caruso, processed recordings of the great tenor stimulate increased turbulence and a springboard for Fennessy’s expansive guitar rhetoric, before the final work unleashes a cathartic sensuality, heightened here by Johnston’s brief vocal enchantment.

It was an impassioned performance, troubled only by Ferguson’s occasional inaudibility and a final lighting effect that understated its theatrical purpose.

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