Robin Holloway's first Symphony provided one of the most talked-about premieres of the 2000 BBC Proms, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted with flair and assurance by Donald Runnicles.
The hour-long score was commissioned by the BBC and, as the Sunday Telegraph put it, "awarded Holloway the daunting task of 'charting the course of the 20th century'... There is no British composer better fitted to do so because he is what could be called a radical Romantic, one who has kept in step with the latest trends while retaining a love of the tonal past." Holloway met the commission's challenge by avoiding detailed pictorial depiction of actual events and pulling the focus back, as if the Earth were for a century being observed from outer space. Historical perspectives become compressed into the prevailing colours, shapes and proportions of the planet seen from afar.
"The result is a work for huge orchestra of visionary grandeur and bold ambition. Its three parts, growing out of the musical seeds of the first few bars, depict the course of the twentieth century, roughly summed up as pre-war opulence, wartime madness and cold-war alienation... [yet] the music has its own eloquence, with or without the storyline... The focus of the piece, the angry, bilious, second movement scherzo, is surely his finest achievement to date. After a jazzy, scene-setting opening it builds up from a desiccated flutter of strings to a great, frenzied climax of terror in which the orchestra is constantly divided and subdivided to achieve more layers of sound... Holloway's mastery of the orchestra is astonishing in its detail and assurance." The Observer
"...a work on a Mahlerian scale, a symphony that truly "embraces everything"... In the first movement a kaleidoscope of allusions to Strauss, Elgar, Debussy and the pastoral school recreates that era not so much nostalgically but as if heard through a hazy dream-mist, or as if seen through the distorting mirrors of Holloway's fertile creative imagination. He avoided attempting to depict the horrors of two world wars, although brutality and mechanisation are frighteningly conjured up in an astonishing outburst of contrapuntal dissonance towards the end of the middle movement after a subtle evocation of The Rite of Spring and the jazz age... The finale begins desolately, but ends with qualified, questioning hope. Several hearings will be needed to unlock all the secrets of this magisterially scored and penetratingly imaginative symphony, but I am in no doubt after one that it is of rewarding importance. A recording soon, please." Sunday Telegraph
Holloway's orchestral music includes the Gramophone Award-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra and its successor the Third Concerto for Orchestra which receives its North American premiere from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas on 7 December. Other acclaimed orchestral works include Scenes from Schumann, Domination of Black, Seascape and Harvest, Clarissa Sequence, a Horn Concerto for Barry Tuckwell and a Violin Concerto for Ernst Kovacic. Further ahead, Robin Holloway's 60th birthday is celebrated in 2003.
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Holloway photo: © Malcolm Crowthers
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