Play is, in part, about exploring some of the meanings conjured up by the word itself. For example, the roles which instrumentalists and instrumental groups take on in the course of a piece of music; soloist, accompanist, as member of a distinct group, commentator or passive observer etc. All clearly defined roles which almost all the performers take on at any one time during the course of the piece or as the play unfolds. The music is also about the interplay between two contrasting melodic lines which run throughout the piece and how one is played off against another.
This is where the musical drama unravels. The piece has five sections which are continuous but have clearly defined characteristics:
The first section opens with a small band of players declaiming one of the melodic strands in a simplified form only to be answered by a solo oboe who is exploring the other melodic material. This process continues as more soloists emerge and the ‘chorus’ becomes larger and larger until something has to give.
Section two is slower and calmer and features a solo flute and a solo viola accompanied by different ensembles. The section ends with a cadenza for these two protagonists and a brief coda. The third part divides the group into six small ensembles and is marked poco scherzando; a kind of twittering, infernal machine although the central part of this section is very lyrical. As the third section dies away a solo bassoon leads into the fourth section which is slow, calm and explores timbral contrasts.
A brief cadenza for the bassoon links the fourth section to the last and this section is dramatic and violent. The static nature of the preceding section is replaced by one of dynamic contrast and pits five soloists against the remaining instrumentalists who play in the various roles discussed earlier. As in the first section, something has to give way and the piece ends with a coda played ad libitum.
Here is a composer with a strong lyrical instinct … The real interest of the piece, which is skilfully and attractively written for a large ensemble, is in observing the varying degrees of freedom allowed to the linear impulse before it expires in a quiet but dramatically conceived ending.
First performed by BCMG conducted by Sakari Oramo, at CBSO Centre, Birmingham on 15 January 1999.