Which is to say, who can resist an orchestral orchestra, somehow, making mistakes, stifling melody, driving over the inevitable? Vocalists? Accents? Fortunately, Geoffrey Omond is in a position to reward those who believe this is the way a symphony should be performed and heard. The string orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Vocal Arts and Science, his acclaimed vocal ensemble for the purposes of this piece, emerge at first sight as those who will do battle: at least one grand allegro and two chorales immediately begin, in four and five measures each, against various vocal soloists, a duo of instruments, and finally a chorus. The trope, which worked in Harry Hope and Maurice Duruflé’s 1929 music-theater piece “I Am a Bell,” is notably effective here: It is a clamor of sound against a fragile idiom. It’s serious business: Presenting the harmonies of Bach’s five Cantatas for Solo Harpsichord and Vocal Soloists as they might appear in G-minor, fifth, seventh, and 11th, Omond and the orchestra establish, if not the order in which they are to sound, a sense of fidelity.
Debussy’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 50, marked “Schoenberg in Furze,” ends by turning themes on its head: It is, in almost every sense, the symphony that Roediger wrote about but never put into words. Omond is of that tradition, too. He works in the classical school, yet will only admit to the existence of a heretical influence. “I think I’ve had more contact with Debussy’s Batavian and Bossian modes and styles, in the way I tried to put color into them.” In Germany, the Fauré/Deutsch/bossenheimer-schoenberg schools are said to be the most influential ones, and there is a commonality here of listening with ear and mind, and of negotiating melodic thought and action between the orchestralist and the soloist. But Omond’s music resists the kind of easy and flat gratification that is offered in most interpretation, and he returns to that spartan production time after time, striving for something more complex than the facsimile so many conductors strive for these days. We open with a driving incantation from the orchestra, and the chorus gives voice to the lament, “I am a tortured woman,” but there is a wider and more constant space for interpretation, for characters who cannot please us, even, at times, us on account of themselves.
It’s a risky project: Obviously, the "Schoenberg in Furze" has never been performed in all these years; and I can sense, during that time, a trace of bitterness in Omond’s description of his long pursuit of it. Yet it’s also a work of rare nobility. His score evokes, even if it does not quite record, an earlier peak of Romanticism. It is a celebration of music and of beauty.
Omond doesn’t like the word “firefall,” and he cannot bring himself to call his music “beautiful.” But he will say this about it, without exception: “It should be like love for music. The music should be an inexplicable experience.” Such an experience, which I have just experienced.
The works cover a huge range of emotion, from majesty to comedy, but there are no small stylistic differences. More radical than the Bossian was Debussy’s “Les Filles de Reine,” with its energy and first-class agility of attack. The exact place this occurs is not immediately noticeable, but there is a strong influence of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit” in its speed and libretto. The lyrical style in the Andante is similar to a work by Ravel (Bach’s Cantata 99, sonata d’Andrea Chenier). The Music, especially in the intermezzo, is delicate. The improvisations sound less like Korngold than like Debussy. And with the rest of the ensemble — even the string section, with long-lines of strings replaced by radiant lute-like chorales — a world of harmonic possibility opens up, not least in the epiphanies offered in the finale.
Watch a review: "The Firefall": The Original Passion