Preview: Shabaka Hutchings - Babylon


ROB EDGAR attended yesterday's rehearsal, and previews the concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Keith Lockhart. Premiere is 13th Nov, LJF, Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Why, I asked Shabaka Hutchings, has he chosen Babylon to be the subject of his  BBC Radio 3 orchestral commission to be performed at the QEH as part of the London Jazz Festival on the 13th of November?

“I wanted to reflect the excesses of over-developed cities, what makes them tick?" The London-based saxophonist and composer and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist responded. "Look at all the components, sometimes there’s harmony at other times there’s a clash. Babylon was the first over-developed city.”

Sitting in the auditorium of the Hackney Empire at the first rehearsal with the BBC Concert Orchestra under American conductor Keith Lockhart gives a unique insight to what makes the piece itself tick. Shabaka is pensive, but his demeanour also smacks of a quiet genius bubbling just below the surface; as the members of the orchestra pursue and buzz around him asking for clarification on this or that, he gives clear but short replies before Lockhart raises his hands and...

When he drops them, the piece begins, for the first time ever, with a distant tremolo whisper in the cello section before being joined by the basses. Next, we hear a pulsating theme in the brass choir, which slowly makes its way around the woodwinds climbing higher and higher up the registers. Just when it reaches the brass again and they are almost at their limit, the strings swoop in with a rich chorale theme whose spirit is reminiscent of Tipett, Elgar or Vaughan Williams

Hutchings told me that in preparation for this piece, he had to reconnect with some of his favourite composers. It is the spirit of French composer Edgard Varése that really shines through here; Babylon is based on cellular themes (the people of the city) that are forced to interact and grow with each other. At times the music can sound sonorous and light but equally, it can be dark and threatening.

The concert will feature Shabaka on saxophone, his band Sons of Kemet. This is very much work in the heat of being created: “I wanted to hear the orchestra before I wrote anything for the band” says Hutchings). Also partipating are Leafcutter John on live samples and beatboxer Jason Singh. Having heard Babylon in an incomplete state, full of possibility, the finished piece will be fascinating to hear.

Queen Elizabeth Hall. Tuesday 13th November. BOOKINGS

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