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Birtwistle's Exody in Chicago and London

(October 1998)

Harrison Birtwistle's most recent orchestral work, Exody, received an impressive world premiere on 5 February from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its Music Director Daniel Barenboim. This success in Chicago further strengthened Birtwistle's reputation in the USA, following acclaimed recent performances of Earth Dances in Cleveland and Antiphonies in Los Angeles. The new score, dedicated to the memory of Sir Michael Tippett, was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Barenboim. The orchestra toured the work to the BBC Proms on 3 September, where it received enthusiastic applause from a capacity audience, and was hailed in the Guardian as "a masterpiece".

Reviewing the work’s premiere, the Guardian summed it up as a "teeming and magnificent new score" and the Chicago Tribune described it as "a wonderful, important new piece, music one will wish to return to again and again, always with a sense of renewal no less keen than that governing its richly imagined unfolding of idea and gesture."

"It is an imposing, many-layered work in a 30-minute, single movement span that is richly scored and full of vividly imagined incident; it was superbly realised by the Chicago Symphony under Daniel Barenboim... Like so many of Birtwistle's finest achievements, Exody is a law unto itself. The title, Greek derived, sets up all kinds of resonances: it can refer to an act of leaving, to a ritual that surrounds a departure, or to the search for a way out, perhaps from a labyrinth. There's a subtitle too, 23:59:59, and this reference to the second before midnight, perhaps to the last moment before a new millenium, offers yet another perspective on the journey that Birtwistle's music undertakes. The whole action can be regarded as being compressed into a single moment of time, as it travels through a musical landscape that offers all kinds of alternative paths that cross and recross each other, so that the landmarks along the way constantly reappear from different perspectives.

"A bundle of musical material that snakes its way through the work fuels this progress. Sometimes the melodic core fuses into a densely textured cluster of lines; elsewhere the strings and wind together create a glinting kaleidoscope of colour. This process constantly reassesses the sound and function of the orchestra, as well as generating important woodwind solos, especially for a pair of saxophones, which seem to play a special structural role in Exody, providing a series of signposts through which listeners can orientate themselves." The Guardian

"Favouring an art of "endless exposition", he takes us on a journey that is all departure (exody), never arrival. It is a journey through a labyrinth from which one is always trying to find the exit and in the process seeing the same environment in ever new ways. At the end, we do find a door, but it is the one through which we entered. That 'door' is specifically conceived as a compound octave C reiterated at the highest and lowest extremes of the orchestra by violins, basses, electric piano and glockenspiel, with the addition at the end of xylophone, low woodwind and flautists playing pitch pipes whose shrill emission blends with hissing violin harmonics to make an already strange sound yet more uncanny and arresting." Sunday Times

"...a great slab of time exposed like an inert sculpture, but moments of beatific calm - a plaintive cor anglais, a keening flute, magical percussion tinklings, a solo cello - bring solace in a shattered soundworld... Melancholy, that familiar mood in Birtwistle's work, is never far away; long slow arching phrases move in apparently unrelated layers against sharp, punctuating punches of sound from the wind and percussion. A soprano and alto saxophone crawl out of the texture; a diaphanous string sound is chopped off by chattering brass, swirls of wind, collisions of change." The Independent

"Birtwistle, entering his fifth decade of mature creativity, has developed his own way of speaking. His rhetoric was always forceful; now he can tease out his arguments with extreme sophistication. Exody is a triumph of the self-made and, in its ignoring of customary ways, an instant relic, gigantic and magnificent." New York Times

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