Fri. Dec 3rd, 2021

Concert halls do not often ring to chanting as if the audience is at a football game, as the Barbican did last week. With tongue in cheek, lifelong Arsenal fan Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote a score depicting his team’s league win over Liverpool in 1989 and a film of the match was shown to go along with it.

This new work should have received as much pre-publicity this year as anything in the classic diary, and not just in the regular media. An audience with capacity showed up, many in Arsenal shirts, cheering along with the original crowd in the film.

Turnage says that writing On the line (the title a quote from the TV commentary as the goal went into the net at the last minute) was “the most fun I’ve had in my life”. It definitely felt that way at the premiere of his 25-minute orchestral score.

He made the decision early on not to write music to accompany the entire match. Instead, a film of highlights is synchronized with a relatively abstract score, though Turnage allows him some pictorial entertainment, such as the contrabassoon sticking his nose in for a missed shot. A jazz trio is added to the mix, though it only makes a transient impact.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra joins a jazz trio © BBC / TomHoward to perform

The piece has rhythmic drive to burn and lots of orchestral color, as always with Turnage, but it can do so with stronger musical ideas in the foreground. If one listens without the film, the music alone is not so good, but a successful future may still lie ahead. Debussy’s ballet Games involves a tennis match. On the line can certainly make a good score for dance.

Backed by the noisy audience, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ryan Bancroft gave the work a rolling performance, and with sharper ensemble than their Shostakovich and Stravinsky earlier. The concert was broadcast live and can be heard on BBC Sounds.

★★★ ☆☆

An evening dedicated to the music of Huw Watkins at Wigmore Hall was a less noisy affair. The first half included Echo (2017), a short song cycle by Watkins, beautifully written for the voice, his emotions lyrically tested by soprano Ruby Hughes with Watkins himself at the piano.

The most important event, however, was his 45-minute camera opera In the closed room (2012), based on a short story by Thomas Hardy. Although performed here in concert, the opera weaved a tangible spell. Among other haunted house operas, the closed room of Britten Owen Wingrave cast a particularly long shadow, both for his story and even some musical details. Watkins’ opera is a softer one than that, rooted in a woman’s romantic obsession with a mysterious poet, and the downside is that the score is content to create a ghostly atmosphere without lifting much tension.

A good quartet of singers – Ruby Hughes, Jess Dandy, James Gilchrist and Hank Neven – played the four individuals trapped in the mystery’s web. A small instrumental ensemble from the British Sinfonia under Andrew Gourlay kept a shiver gently going along the spine.

★★★ ☆☆,

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