The Flight of Icarus
‘Cleared for take-off into the sun’
Widely regarded as one of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s most successful commissions John Pickard’s The Flight of Icarus received its first London performance at the Proms on Wednesday night, amply fulfilling its promise. It is in a single movement, and scored for a large orchestra which makes its presence felt from the opening bars. With strings and wind in whirlwind motion, and frenzied tuckets on three trumpets, the introductory section suggests, in the composer’s words, the ‘”ascent from the labyrinth” (ie, the aeronautical escape of Daedalus and his son Icarus from King Minos). This is not simplistic scene-painting, however, and the middle section vividly evokes the exhilaration of flight, it also projects a sense of triumph over natural laws, of the high idealism of human endeavour.
Pride comes before a fall though and suddenly catastrophe looms out of a clear blue sky. icarus falls hubristiclly to his death, and his father flies on into the setting sun – an image that Pickard recreates with his sonorously spaced brass and full-textured strings. Pickard’s score remains airborne over its 20-minute span rather more proficiently than Icarus, leading the ear and imagination with impressive resourcefulness.’
The Times, 2 August 1996
‘Out of this world’
‘The Wednesday Prom by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales got off to a flying start. Having been inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing as a child, the composer John Pickard became fascinated by the idea of man in space and hit upon the myth of Icarus as the subject for an airborne orchestral piece.
The result was The Flight of Icarus, a BBC commission, premiered by the orchestra in 1991 and here receiving its London premiere. Essentially this is a 20-minute Straussian tone-poem, written for a huge orchestra and exhibiting a flamboyant taste for pounding timpani and rocketing brass fireworks. The opening music is reminiscent of the flying sequence in Strauss’s Don Quixote, though divided strings and woodwind filigree later suggest the rich textures of Tippett were a more immediate influence. As a concert opener, it provided an exciting lift-off.
The rest of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s two concerts under Mark Wigglesworth inevitably sounded fairly earthbound by comparison.’
Financial Times, 2 August 1996
‘Appealing response to age of space flight’
‘Our national symphony orchestra is a familiar and well-proven visitor to the Albert Hall Proms, its concerts increasing in number over the years as its international reputation grows.
This week saw the first two appearances (of this year’s five) both with music director Mark Wigglesworth at the helm and newly appointed Janice Graham as leader.
This highly successful programme opened with the London premiere of John Pickard’s already acclaimed and considerably performed Flight of Icarus, a substantive continuous symphonic response to the age of space flight, taking off as it were what the Greek legend of the title leaves to the imagination, speculation and the gift of the story-teller.
Scored for a large orchestra, its three sections are packed with energetic musical demands, identifiable or not (according to the composer’s well-attended pre-performance lecture) with the various stages of a real space mission.
It resolves its earlier dissonant clamour with eventual human melody, harmony and a restful familiar consonance (D flat), vindicating the concept of endeavour and clearly to the appeal of the large and concentrating audience, an essential element in the composer’s natural purpose.’
Western Mail, 2 August 1996
‘Tribute to the Glory of Vanity’
‘Last night’s Prom was all about vanity. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales began their second concert with the London premiere of John Pickard’s The Flight of Icarus. It was vanity which led the first would-be pilot to fly too near the sun.
Principal Conductor Mark Wigglesworth flapped eloquently. The orchestra was lustrous and responsive. There were no weaknesses. Principal trumpet Paul Archibald blazed with golden tone. Martin Ronchetti’s clarinet was cream.
Mr. Pickard’s exciting 20-minute overture takes about a quarter of an hour to become airborne. Its gait after the tuba’s first bar exclamation – go! – is heavy but agile and characterised by short, sharp crescendos like swellings of pride in angry, high-stepping earthbound tutti chords. Eventually it lifts off with a soaring string melody that floats above a murky orchestral sound receding into the distance. Vanity likes to keep failure quiet. Crying oboes follow a descent until the distant whisper of a gong – splosh – cues applause’
Evening Standard, 1 August 1996
‘Flight of Icarus’ soars in bravura U.S. Premiere
The new year is less than a week old, and already we have a serious contender for the most exciting musical premiere of 2006.
True, “The Flight of Icarus,” a lush and dramatic tone poem by British composer John Pickard, dates from all the way back in 1990. But Wednesday’s performance by the San Francisco Symphony under guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth marked the work’s U.S. premiere, and it got the year off to a ravishing start.
The program also featured pianist Lang Lang as soloist in a broad-beamed account of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and Wigglesworth – until now best known in these parts as a virtuoso Shostakovich conductor -capped a long evening with a crisp and buoyant rendition of Haydn’s Symphony No. 99.
But it was the 17-minute opener by Pickard – a composer unknown even to the famously Anglophile editors of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians – that made the profoundest impression. With a combination of harmonic wealth, melodic invention and sharp dramatic clarity, the music captivates the imagination, and Wigglesworth and the orchestra gave it a bravura performance.
The subject is drawn from Greek mythology, but Pickard’s writing is only partly pictorial. There are clear evocations of the Cretan labyrinth in which Icarus and his father Daedalus are imprisoned and of Icarus’ final tumble into the sea.
And in the piece’s most heart-stoppingly beautiful passage, the first human flight is depicted with a vaulting rush of melody in the upper strings. Suddenly, all the lower instruments drop away like the discarded constraints of gravity, and the strings tumble and whirl in an exhilarating exploration of newfound freedom. The Wright Brothers never had it so good.
But there’s more to “The Flight of Icarus” than the simple story line, because Pickard also lays out his creation with a formalist’s eye for patterning. Thematic elements recur in varied form, the textural landscape shifts and returns, and Pickard’s rhythmic palette — at once subtle and straightforward — keeps things moving compellingly. Even without a plot, listeners can always tell where they are in the progress of the piece.
Most interesting is Pickard’s harmonic language, which is based in tonality but extends it in often-unexpected directions. Harmony is clearly a central concern for this composer — much of the music is as architecturally solid as a Bach chorale, and the bass lines often provide the most compelling listening.
If there’s one cavil to be made, it’s that Pickard’s orchestration tends to be on the thick side, with nearly all the instruments playing nearly all the time. Still, even within that framework he conjures up a surprising range of sonorities. And the writing does thin out, to glorious effect, in the final section of the piece, a translucent and achingly lovely memorial to the fallen Icarus.
San Francisco Chronicle, 6 January 2006