Britten and Brutalism

On Sunday I went to the opening concert of the new LSO season. I was especially keen to hear Holst’s rarely-performed Egdon Heath, and £10 ‘wildcard’ tickets were available – in which you gamble on being put anywhere in the hall. So I made my way over to the Barbican.

Over the last few years, I’ve visited this concrete complex more as a place to write and socialise rather than to listen to music. It may be a formidably confusing labyrinth for newcomers, but it has an excellent music library, free wifi, and places to sit with coffee. I now know where all the toilets are hidden, and how to exit via those mysterious upper walkways. 

Concrete, it seems, can even be pleasant. In the courtyard in warm September sunshine, you’re surrounded by water features, hanging window gardens, and an upmarket cafeteria. Its designer-chic gift shop sells pencils and erasers with the word BRUTAL on them. Long despised, Brutalist architecture is cool now, even commodified. By the end of the evening, I was feeling that perhaps an idea of post-war Britain it represents is in vogue too. 

Here, in this most iconically 20th-century building, we heard a concert of works all written in the last 100 years. But extra excitement had been added by the announcement of a new music school to help children in 10 East London boroughs. This was met with acclaim in the arts media, hungry for signs of hope in the face of widespread cuts to music education. Mark-Anthony Turnage, a composer on that evening’s programme, tweeted: ‘This is fantastic news. Bravo @londonsymphony and Simon Rattle. Showing up our pathetic, morally bankrupt government’.

Growing up, I learned that the much-despised Brutalist architecture was a thing of the 1960s. So I was always surprised to learn that the Barbican Centre was actually opened in 1982, when Thatcher was already in power.

The modernity of the place is deceptive in other ways too. As the evening’s audience started to arrive in the foyer, trumpet fanfares from Guildhall students rained down from the upper level. Barbican director Nicholas Kenyon walked past with a livery-chained companion, presumably the Lord Mayor, or another dignitary from the Corporation of the City of London. The sonic heraldry was an appropriate reminder of that odd anachronism – still organised on Medieval lines – which runs this kernel of global-capitalist London, complete with its own police force.

On another day, my wildcard ticket might have got me one of the best seats, but I was given a spot on the balcony. I was in the centre with a good view, the leg-room was ample, and best of all, programme notes were given out for free – something that should be standard. This started to feel like the modern concert experience I was looking for.

Another fanfare opened proceedings, a new commission by Harrison Birtwistle. I’ve never particularly warmed to his music, and while this was enjoyably clamorous in places, with plenty of percussion, it made little overall sense. That its ending dissipated into a few low farts on the tuba was particularly underwhelming. By now, the idea of fanfares were starting to feel a little old-hat.

As percussion was bundled away, Rattle grabbed a microphone. He explained that he wanted to combine the new with the established and the neglected. Holst’s Egdon Heath is the last of those. It’s based on a fictional Dorset landscape in Hardy’s The Return Of The Native, one described as ‘like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony’. 

Talking nostalgically about his 20s, Rattle explained that Adrian Boult had told him ‘it’s incredibly difficult to perform, and people won’t like it when you do. But it’s a masterpiece’. 

It’s a wonderfully subtle work, and its difficulty is in its introversion – the subdued orchestration and defiant irregularity. Putting it early in the programme, while our attention was still fresh, was a good idea for what often sounds like chamber music. If you can find your feet in Hardy’s psycho-geography, as Holst reimagined it, there’s a really strange beauty about the place. And this returned native certainly did.

A modern double trumpet concerto was up next. If that screams ‘certified audience repellent’, the title of Turnage’s Dispelling The Fears might raise a wry smile. In fact he took the title from a painting, and while it didn’t leave a strong impression as a form, it came across as engagingly impressionistic. 

Fears of a difficult listen were certainly dispelled, and my main takeaway was of the whole ensemble coalescing, with vibrant, colourful energy, taking us out of Hardy’s heath and into a slightly jazz-tinged city. I might have liked more firmly defined dialogue – both between the soloists, and with the orchestra. But it is to Turnage’s credit that this piece didn’t seem to drag either – in fact it seemed over quite quickly. 

It also made a logical sense within a programme of increasing size and warmth towards the main event – Britten’s Spring Symphony, a piece that requires chorus, children’s chorus, and three solo singers.

I had never heard this work live, and after the first half, Britten’s clarity and directness of articulation was welcome. The texts summon up the cuckoo, but his approach to them was more magpie – stealing liberally across centuries of verse. Combined with the large forces, the piece has a pageant or festival atmosphere. This was all the fanfare we needed.

The combined children’s choir came on only for their two sections – and the stage being almost full, many of them had to spill out down in a line through the stalls, a bizarre sight which perhaps underlines Rattle’s desire for a new concert hall. In the last movement, the choir swayed as if drunk, and a cow-horn blasted away high up in the hall. It was all getting a bit silly – but surely just as Britten intended. The tone, in the same spirit of the new LSO school, was one of inclusivity.

It was a very enjoyable evening. And picking up the season brochure, it seems it is typical in at least one sense. The marketable angularity of the Barbican’s concrete is reflected in a strong showing of 20th-century repertoire— Sibelius, Shostakovich, Bartok, Ravel. The 18th and 19th centuries have to make do with a lot less than in many other venues.

There is plenty to look forward to, and of course there is some new music too. But a comment by Rattle in the Guardian piece about the new school had been playing on my mind before the concert. He said: ‘why do our groups of classical musicians not look like London looks and what can we do about it?’. 

I don’t have the full context of this quote, but I did wonder why he only said ‘looks like’ London, and not sounds like London.

This is the bigger problem. In this new season, the LSO will be playing little by women composers and those outside of Europe and North America. The bodies of orchestral music from, say, Latin America and East Asia remain as overlooked as ever. So while the new school is undoubtedly a great step forward, the deeper question remains: why would we expect diverse communities of children to be interested in an art form that so often defaults to the creations of white men?

Hopefully this will change over time. It is no small challenge – for me as much as anyone. I’ve been educating myself about music by women in recent years, and I still have a long way to go in classical music from outside the western mainstream. Paying audiences need educating and convincing too.

But if Brutalism is back in fashion, over the course of the evening I sensed that the commodified aesthetic of the Barbican also reflects a longing for a certain idea of post-war progressivism – of a Britain that took more pride in the civic ideals of public institutions. A Britain before that different brutality came to dominate national life, around the time this centre was opened: the brutal logic of free-market fundamentalism. 

This may be a progressivism that Rattle can nostalgically recall from the days of Adrian Boult. But it also seems to be quite a patrician one, in which he doesn’t have to think too much about the overwhelming white maleness of what he’s doing. There is little sign of the LSO really responding to the implications of today’s identity politics – however tricky that might be.

I left this modernist concrete jungle feeling more than ever that the LSO under Rattle is an ensemble successfully suited to a stylish and marketable 20th century. There’s a lot to enjoy in that. But it may be that we need to look outside the City of London to find those who will more meaningfully bring classical music into the 21st.

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