JANUARY-MARCH 2016 MUSICAL OPINION QUARTERLY
Eleanor Alberga’s Langvad UK premiere at Arcadia Festival 2015 Launched in 2010 and based in the beautiful setting of the Welsh marches, the annual Arcadia Festival is devised and directed by its co founders, composer/ pianist Eleanor Alberga and violinist Thomas Bowes. Each year they draw upon a group of high-calibre instrumentalists to perform well-loved chamber and instrumental repertoire as well as new music, some of which is provided by Alberga herself.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Eleanor Alberga has built a distinctive output that reflects not only several years as a concert pianist, but also her experience singing Jamaican folksongs and as a member of an authentic African dance company. Among her most important pieces are an opera, Letters of a Love Betrayed, commissioned by the Royal Opera House and Music Theatre Wales and premiered in October 2009 at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre; a dramatic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for large orchestra and narrators; a critically acclaimed Violin Concerto (2001); three string quartets; a dynamic quartet for flute, oboe, cello and piano Tiger Dream in Forest Green (2004); Succubus Moon, for oboe and string quartet (2007), and Shining Gate of Morpheus, for horn and string quartet (2012) a shadowy and inventive singlemovement utterance of great warmth and eloquence. Her curtain-raiser Arise, Athena, scored for large symphony orchestra and chorus, opened the 2015 Last Night of the Proms and it is to be hoped that this recent high-profile commission will serve to raise further the profile of a composer with an individual and engaging voice.
Written in 2006, Alberga’s Langvad is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass. It was inspired by the Kirsten Kjaers Museum in Northwest Denmark and its developers John Anderson and Harald Fuglsang who also initiated the Langvad Chamber Music Jamboree summer festival. The museum is located in the village of Langvad which consists of a very long road. This suggested to the composer the idea of a long parade, perhaps by circus folk, or a chronicle of events. Some thing of the myriad episodes encountered in a life is evoked by the serenade-like score’s alternately vibrant and reflective passages.
Langvad is cast in one movement divided into contrasting sections. Clarinet and violin have key roles to play in the piece with extended solos marking significant transitional points in the material. Oboe and horn also come to the fore at other junctures, though Alberga ensures that each instrument in the ensemble has a crucial role to play in the infolding drama. A short but ear-catching episode for string quintet reminds us that the composer has written several effective chamber works for strings, each benefitting in very different ways from her fusion of flowing lyricism and rhythmic energy. Journeying seamlessly from the substantial clarinet solo which launches the piece to angular and pungent dancelike tutti convulsions to an eloquent central soliloquy for solo violin followed by a gentle melodic threnody for strings in canon to the final frenetic collective outburst, Langvad is a joyous celebration of diverse elements welded together convincingly into a single arc.
Presenting the work’s UK premiere on 1 October 2015 in the Grade 1 listed medieval church of St. Mary Madgalene, Leintwardine, a stellar line-up of instrumentalists, consisting of flautist Sarah Newbold, oboist Jane Marshall, clarinettist Sacha Rattle, bassoonist Bartosz Kwasecki and hornist Victoria Swensen, violinists Thomas Bowes and Patrick Kiernan, violist Louise Williams, cellist Robert Irvine and double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, was conducted with spirit and flexibility by Eleanor Alberga. This was an exuberant and expressive account of a directly communicative and life-affirming piece which makes a very welcome addition to the scant repertory for a dectet combining string quintet and wind quintet.
Eleanor Alberga’s uplifting Langvad formed the centrepiece of a compelling programme consisting of Dvorák’s Quintet in G major for double bass and string quartet, Op.77, and, after the interval, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131. Dvorák’s evergreen chamber work received a reading of tremendous panache, its haunting melodies presented with the utmost freshness and spontaneity. Some extra drama was occasioned by the breaking of one of Thomas Bowes’ strings in the finale, but after an unavoidable but commendably brief hiatus, the players continued to the end, resuming the effervescent mood of the movement with admirable ease. The crowning glory of the evening’s musicmaking was an intense and deeply-felt performance of Beethoven’s Op.131, in which Thomas Bowes and Robert Irvine made a particularly strong impression with the passion and commitment of their playing. The exacting seven unbroken movements were cogently and persuasively traversed, capturing the immensity, outlandishness and humanity of Beethoven’s vision.
This was a concert of tremendous sweep and variety. Such was its distinction that I feel it cannot be long before the Arcadia Festival joins the long-established staples of the British music festival calendar. I await next year’s programme with great interest.