I streets; skies;
II docks; domes
This piece, written summer-autumn 1997 for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, dedicated to the orchestra and its then conductor Grant Llewellyn, and inspired by its native city Antwerp, grows directly out of two enjoyable things; watching and hearing the orchestra at work on my visits as "composer-in-residence" during the 1996 season; and in spare hours in-between, taking long solitary walks around the city and port, looking, listening, absorbing. The music grows directly from the fusion of these activites. From rehearsals, with individual faces attached to individual sounds, I would wander out with a notepad ready, scribbling down ideas on the spot, like an artist sketching.
But of course, music can’t paint pictures or take photographs. The final result is necessarily more evocative, atmospheric, impressionistic, abstract. Absolutely not a picture-postcard of Antwerp, nor even an easel-painting: the sensory "input" from the city - mainly visual, also of smell, sound, taste, touch - is infused with feelings and moods and the interplay of time and place; things that music can do uniquely well, in compensation for its inability to give specific information like a map or a timetable.
There are two halves, each divided into two sections. The first half begins with streets - a mosaic of fanfare motifs, snatches of whistling, with motions of walking, running, cycling; generally physical, lively, energetic. Towards its end, the fanfares twice coalesce into a bright dissonant quasi-chorale. A second, climactic version leads into the second section of this first half, skies; all clouds, currents of air, rain and sun, wheeling seagulls - a scherzino of light rapid motion enclosing a lyrical trio played by groups of solo strings, in its middle a further trio with woodwinds and brass in dialogue, after which the string-music returns on their entire body. The return of the scherzino is drastically foreshortened, evaporating in a few seconds like scudding clouds.
After all this fast music the second half is basically slow. It begins with music initially jotted down during long walks around the harbour-area. What emerges is an aria for solo saxophones, in three stanzas that grow increasingly impassioned: this is followed by a vision of the deep broad, sluggish Scheldt. The second section, domes, makes a coda to the whole work, an apotheosis of the city by way of its grandest and most flamboyant buildings, such as the extravagant railway station and the opulent ostentation of the nineteenth-century buildings on Meir, first seen from a distance, then gradually moving closer until we stand directly beneath. Snatches of fanfare from the streets section alternate with string music from the river section, crowned at the close by a grandiose figure that makes a kind of metaphor for a stone or guilded dome rising proudly into a confident sky.
Robin Holloway, September 1998
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer