Vic Hoyland


BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Lytton at the Barbican, London, 28th January 2009, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

for large orchestra

3 (3rd +picc), 3(3rd+ca), 3 (3rd+ bcl/cbcl), 3(3rd+cbn) – 4,4,3(2T1B), 1 – elec pfte, 2hp, 4 perc –

Commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra

30’ 00” duration 2007
ISMN M 57020 927 9

1st Performance

Barbican, London, BBC Symphony Orchestra conductor Andrew Lytton, 28 January 2009, live broadcast Radio 3 (promotional CD available)

Performance Programme Notes

This new composition, written 2006-7, comes as the last panel (‘surge’ might be a better word for such dynamic music) in an orchestral triptych by Hoyland, following Vixen (1997) and Qibti (2003). Like those predecessors, Phoenix is a big piece in both music’s dimensions of time and sound: it plays for about half an hour and is scored for a large orchestra that includes an active group of four percussionists, so that struck sonorities are equally as important as those bowed or blown. A difference from the two earlier scores is that most of the percussion instruments are tuned, producing clangs, shimmers, vibrant streams and scintillant rushes that play through the music almost continuously. As in Qibti, though not in Vixen, there is also and electric keyboard sampling similar sounds as well as briefly near the end, those of an organ. Phoenixes, we may recall, are born amid flames, and it is partly from brilliantly metallic sparks that Hoyland’s fire music is made.

Phoenix is big from its beginning, where elements (beginnings and endings) are intercut and dovetailed. They include chords on horns continuing to an excited staccato burst in quick, tight rhythm, with strings and brass to the fore, and then a melody led by super high violins, estatico. The ensuing sequence for percussion over a sustained string chord rises to an evocation of ‘La Marangona’, the great, surviving bell that sounds from the campanile of St Mark’s in Venice. A long pause follows.

Chords speaking from medium-bass register move towards a flowing passage that features flutes and clarinets, interrupted by brilliant music led by what the composer imagines as the six silver trumpets (a gift from the Pope) that would herald the Venetian doge in ceremonial processions (four trumpets joined by two trombones). This is the real inauguration of the new piece, and out of it comes further music with prominent flutes and clarinets, followed by an adagio initiated by the strings alone, and maintained by them against – or with – insistent flares and irruptions, as well as sprinklings from flutes, piccolo and percussion. The inevitable climax precipitates a powerful message from the brass, extending to a massive tutti that brings the first part to a close.

The Bridge: Quiet resonances summon a slow but accelerating interlude that issues in an emphatic statement, typical of Italian bells at Easter time. From here the second part gets going, and moves towards a tumultuous development of the staccato music from early in part one. Now the quiet resonances return, this time inducing another sweep of music with flowing flutes and clarinets in pole position. Trumpets and trombones signal a change, bringing the music to its last and most momentous cycle of turmoil. A thrilling culmination, again with the marking estatico, prepares for a finale in which blocks of triplets, going as fast as possible, are hurled about towards a frenzied conclusion. But this is not the end: out of it comes a slow postlude.

‘I don’t believe my pieces to be at all programmatic, though they can be descriptive,’ the composer has said, ‘and I draw on absolutely specific things that feed and enrich the imagination, and help me conceive these large tapestries in sound. With Phoenix we come to Venice. The first part contemplates Byzantine St Mark’s, the Greek cross, the five domes, circular patterns, inward and dark, the trampling bronze horses, the campanile with its great bell, and much else besides, eventually to burn up and collapse. After we cross the Grand Canal the second part contemplates the Frari church, the Latin cross, line and light, the Venetian Gothic and, more than anything else ‘the superb triptych by Giovanni Bellini that was designed for and is housed in a side chapel of the Frari church. The postlude hints at Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and so at the ending of a great era of culture, associated with Venice.’

Paul Griffiths

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