Review of Gaia Symphony – first performance

Cheltenham Music Festival

Sunday 10th July

The world première of John Pickard’s Gaia Symphony for brass band is arguably the most exciting and distinctive piece of programming by Martyn Brabbins in the first Cheltenham Festival under his Artistic Directorship. Both Brabbins and Pickard grew up in the brass band tradition, which the symphony both respects and transcends. The Gaia Symphony has had a long gestation period.

The title of this colossal, hour-long work refers to the Greek goddess of the Earth, and reflects the symbolic connexion of each movement to natural phenomena, based on the four elements of Water, Fire, Air and Earth. The symphony consists of four separate tone poems or movements linked together by ‘Windows’ written for six percussionists. These pivotal interludes refine the score’s palette and give the brass players a well-earned rest, as well as adding a fresh perspective on the preceding music and anticipating the ensuing material. Each of the movements was in fact written and performed separately (the earliest, Wildfire, as long ago as 1991) and it was only after a span of 13 years composing the four tone poems that the composer decided to unite them into a single entity.

From the introductory bars, it is evident that this is going to be a large-scale, truly symphonic work. Momentous pedal points and ominous ostinati tell the audience they are about to embark on a vast journey. There is a genuine sense of expectation as the odyssey is begun. The opening movement, Tsunami, was completed in 2002 and hence has no reference to the tragic events of Boxing Day 2004. It is, rather, a purely musical response to the concept of the momentum built up and ultimately discharged by a large tidal wave. The movement is launched and driven by nervous energy, grippingly held in check during a tense central section that features solos of eerie foreboding.

Wildfire was inspired by a newspaper report of two forest fires that started separately before converging on each other. Again, this movement is not a literal depiction of the fire, but there is a fierce, blazing quality to this, the scherzo of the design. Phrases flicker, spit and flare up, burning through climaxes of white heat, which extinguish themselves in a remarkable, desiccated fragment of crackling wooden slapsticks. Aurora, a tenderly sketched depiction of the Aurora Borealis, offers crucial respite after the fierce energy of the first two movements. Interlacing solos shape the fabric of this serene, contemplative slow movement, weaving a fragile, kaleidoscopic skein of gossamer beauty.

The Finale, Men of Stone, is cast in four distinct sections, each picturing an ancient site housing various Neolithic stone circles around the British Isles, captured at specific times of day. ‘Avebury’ is depicted on an autumnal morning, ‘Castlerigg’ in Cumbria in a snowstorm on a winter’s afternoon, ‘Barclodiad-y-Gawres’, on the coast of Angelsey, during a spring sunset and ‘Stonehenge’ during Midsummer’s Eve, as dawn emerges through the stones. Whilst Earth remains the dominating element behind the whole of Men of Stone, its four sections also contain the classical elements represented by the four movements of the symphony as a whole: earth for ‘Avebury’, air for the blizzard scene of ‘Castlerigg’, water for the seascape of ‘Barclodiad y Gawres’ and fire for the climactic midsummer scene of ‘Stonehenge’. The four-in-one nature of ‘Men of Stone’ serves as a rigorous review of the entire large-scale structure, in true symphonic fashion. The massively optimistic final major chord, with which this work ends, not only represents harmony between a natural and man-made phenomenon, but also signifies journey’s end for this spectacular aural voyage.

Special mention must be made of the three transitional ‘Windows’, which use a variety of drums, bells and cymbals. They link the four main movements and go a long way towards securing the success of the whole symphony. As well as offering a welcome contrast in timbre from the brass band sonorities, these interludes gather in rhythmic complexity, from the regular pulse of the first via the elaborate counterpoint of the second to the more flexible and irregular aspect of the third. They contribute vital musical and narrative cohesion.

The Buy As You View Band (formerly the Cory Band), under the direction of Robert Childs, gave a virtuoso world première performance, with fine brass sonorities allied to a keen rhythmic sense and peerless technical execution. It is good that they have recorded the work, so their masterly interpretation of this monolithic tour de force can be widely heard (Doyen CD 188).

Pickard’s Gaia Symphony is a remarkable achievement, challenging received opinion about the brass band concert repertoire – habitually a diet of trite marches, prosaic arrangements and mortifyingly stodgy versions of pop tunes. He has succeeded in creating an epic work of genuine symphonic weight as well as dimension, with subtle thematic and structural links between all four movements. A lesser composer might have produced the longest test piece in the history of the brass band movement, but Pickard is a natural symphonist, thinking in long-breathed, sweeping paragraphs of sound and, as in Nicholas Maw’s Odyssey, the very choice of material determines and sustains an expansive structure. I hope John Pickard will go on to write more symphonies (Gaia is his Fourth): on the strength of this example and his bravely compelling Second and Third contributions to the genre, he has the technique and the temperament to emerge as one of the great symphonists of the 21st century.

Paul Conway
‘Tempo’