Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ***


It was surely clumsy planning to include two new piano concertos not only in the same programme, but, even worse, both in the first half of that programme.

It was also somewhat unfair to make the work of a relative newcomer follow the world premiere of a long-awaited piano concerto by a well-established composer already twice decorated, and performed at the Proms.

Errolyn Wallen’s Piano Concerto teems with ideas (perhaps in over-abundance), nodding happily to many of the 20th century’s greatest composers, and with a particular affinity with Gershwin’s example. Like the Piano Concerto of that composer, Wallen’s begins with urban busy-ness,  like the Gershwin the second movement is bluesy, with a smoky trumpet solo (later mirrored by a solo cello).

Unlike Gershwin, however, this movement builds up a raunchy head of steam, delivered by the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra under Michael Seal with vigour and colour, all the while busy soloist Rebeca Omordia collaborating and prompting with power and energy.

A brief interlude of primordial stirrings follows, before a celebratory finale, almost equally brief, pays homage to the soloist’s part Romanian roots, with Omordia responding deftly to Wallen’s exuberant exploration of the piano.

Another world premiere followed, The Louder the Birds Sing, by Angela Elizabeth Slater, a composer concerned about the environment and climate-change, and whose music is often inspired by her own poetry. This piece is spectral, gestural, the orchestra imaginatively explored (the exuberant percussion pulling every trick out of the hat), and all authoritatively controlled by conductor Yannick Mayaud.

Then came the world premiere of Slater’s own Piano Concerto, a 30-minute work with no real apparent structure to dictate its length, and one in which the relationship between piano and orchestra is more concertante than solo/tutti collaboration.

Subtitled “Tautening Skies”, another environmental poem by Slater, the concerto was composed for Laura Farre Rozada, a PhD student at the RBC exploring memorising techniques, and she as soloist achieved miracles of mind and muscle memory, playing without music through this taxing half hour. Piano technique entered little into the equation; memorising was all, but we wonder whether all this effort will be rewarded with any subsequent performances – so often the elephant in the room with contemporary premieres.

The piece is certainly a good exercise in orchestral counting, brilliantly achieved under Mayaud, but the often choppy piano textures, the seemingly disparate snatches of orchestral material, failed to cohere – and there was no innate reason why this display ever had to stop.

Christopher Morley

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