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Live Music Review An engrossing exploration of the orchestra as a medium for creating ambient music

Max Richter: Ambient Orchestra
Barbican

THE last time pioneering composer Max Richter graced the halls of the Barbican it was to perform Voices, a new work commissioned by the arts centre, in February 2020 — one of the last live gigs before the coronavirus lockdown.

Now he returns for an evening dubbed “ambient orchestra” with an impressive expanded line-up of the 12 Ensemble, including two harps, and soprano Grace Davidson.

So often associated with amalgamating classical and electronic disciplines, tonight Richter explores the orchestra as a medium for creating ambient music.

Treating us to three UK premieres, the first is Testament, written in tribute to Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who died in March 2020 after a long illness.

The mesmerising piece has only been performed once before — on Polish television on the anniversary of Penderecki's death.

Then there’s Opus 2020, commissioned by Beethoven Orchestra Bonn for the composer’s 250th birthday, which as Richter explains was inspired by Stockhausen’s 200th anniversary tribute, Opus 1970.

But where Stockhausen’s dissonant tribute fitted radios with tape collages all playing excerpts of Beethoven compositions, Richter does away with machines and instead takes Beethoven fragments to be performed instrumentally. The result is, conversely, a work of breathtaking harmonic beauty, and one in which the marriage of orchestra as ambient music is powerfully realised.

The final UK premiere, Exiles, which closes the evening, was written in response to the Syrian refugee crisis yet has unsettling relevance today amid the war in Ukraine.

It’s a towering achievement that builds from Richter’s soft piano chords to a thundering crescendo of strings that tests every instrument in the ensemble, evoking the crashing waves of the sea — a nod to the exile’s perilous journey.

Richter also performs The Waves: Tuesday, the final part of a ballet score inspired by the work of author Virginia Woolf. It begins with Woolf’s suicide note, read in a pre-record by actor Gillian Anderson, while Davidson’s soaring soprano takes centre stage.

Dream 19 (Pulse), taken from the eight-hour conceptual work Sleep, and Arbenita (11 Years) from debut album Memoryhouse, complete the evening, but not before a surprise encore of one of his most famous and recognisable compositions, On The Nature Of Daylight.

To witness such rare works of beauty is a joy to behold and, in just seven pieces, a comprehensive overview of Richter’s rich repertoire.

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