Venables plays Bartók – WP at the BBC Proms

Venables plays Bartók – WP at the BBC Proms

»There was something intensely moving, profound even, in the way the work unfolded.« (bachtrack)

At the 17 August BBC Proms concert, iconic violinist Pekka Kuusisto and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Philip Venables’ new violin concerto, Venables plays Bartók. Conducted by Sakari Oramo at London's Royal Albert Hall, this very personal piece links the inspiring life’s journey of master violin teacher Rudolf Botta, the teacher of Venables’ violin teacher Marilyn Shearn, who emigrated from his native Hungary to the UK after the failed 1956 uprising, to the composer’s own life journey from his early violin studies through the creation of the work. Alternating voiceovers of the composer and the words of Botta, and “musical postcards” of the music of Venables and Bartók, create a “radio music drama”, as Venables describes it, in which the lives of teacher and pupil intersect again, 25 years after the 14-year-old Venables played Bartók’s Evening in the Village to Botta in a master class.

Composer's note

"Botta’s family settled in Burnley and he started working as a window cleaner. He and his eldest daughter Emöke (known in the UK as Alexandra) were featured playing violin and piano in a TV news item about the refugees. The Royal Manchester College of Music saw it, tracked him down and wrote to offer him a job. He learned English quickly and took up their offer, eventually becoming acting Head of Strings at the RNCM. This was Botta’s calling – over a 30-year career he touched the lives of hundreds of violinists and future teachers. Marilyn Shearn was one of them and she, in turn, passed his pragmatic technique and love for the instrument on to me.
My concerto was becoming clear. The gift of violin playing, the gift of music, passed on through our violin family tree, from Botta, to Shearn, to me, which would lead me to be standing with Pekka, Sakari and the BBCSO on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall. I started writing text – two voiceovers, in my own voice and Botta’s (played by actor Jot Davies). The piece would be a series of alternating diary entries in these two voices; a series of musical postcards, jumping abruptly between my own tableaux and folk dances arranged by Bartók for violin and piano. Pekka’s violin would be the unifying voice that strings the two intersecting journeys together: my journey of learning the violin, researching and making the piece; and Botta’s journey through the second world war, imprisonment, fleeing Hungary and making a new life in the UK. Those two histories met at that moment captured on that old VHS tape – me playing Evening in the Village to Rudolf, 25 years ago."

The Guardian, 14.08.2018

Philips Venables' Venables plays Bartok at BBC Proms 2018
Venables plays Bartók, Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms 2018

Press quotes

It could have all been so self-indulgent or pretentious, especially as the piece culminates in the audio from that childhood masterclass video, with the young Venables playing the piece with which the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, had started the work’s journey. But there was something intensely moving, profound even, in the way the work unfolded, the mundaneness of creativity as narrated by the composer contrasting with Botta’s often searing reminiscences (spoken by actor Jot Davies), and with the music of Bartók and Venables illuminating each other, the Hungarian’s folk dance arrangements giving familiar touchstones to the musical flow. Indeed, such was the interplay between soloist, orchestra and voice-over (the latter not always ideally balanced in the hall for ultimate clarity, it must be said, and with a handful of technical glitches) that the focus at any one time was surprisingly clear-cut and connected directly to ear and brain.

bachtrack, 19.08.2018

The interaction of Bartok’s music with Venables’s, and of recorded spoken text, both the excerpts and bits of the actual coaching with Botta, with one aspect prominent and then receding as the focus shifts to another (at one point I found myself remembering Stravinsky’s comment about the first time he heard Pierrot Lunaire–that he wished the singer would shut up so he could hear the music–and then at another regretted the music’s making it hard to understand the speaking), the clarity of the time shifts in the stories, and the control and balancing of density of textures, is always engaging and interesting, but the unfolding of aspects of one person’s life and how it and he then go on to impact other lives in various ways is completely compelling and very moving. It was impressive in its conception and its masterly realization, and completely satisfying as a total experience.

Sequenza 21/, 23.08.2018

Philips Venables' Venables plays Bartok at BBC Proms 2018
Venables plays Bartók, Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms 2018

The half-hour work mixed Botta's taped reminiscences, eight little folk-based pieces by Bartók, the tape of Venables playing to Botta and Venables's own cluster-rich, atmospheric music. Brilliantly played by Pekka Kuususto in an otherwise unremarkable BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Sakari Oramo, the concerto was strongest when evoking the horrors of Soviet occupation, and weirdest when incorporating Venables's commentary on how he wrote it.

The Times, 20.08.2018

Venables plays Bartók (2018)

for violin, orchestra and tape
vl - - - 4timp.perc - pf.tape - str
Duration: 30'
WP: 17.08.2018, London

Photos: BBC Chris Chistodoulou