BLO Music Director David Angus shares his thoughts about the music of The Lighthouse.
One of the most entertaining things about Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' opera, The Lighthouse, is what he does with the little orchestra. There are only 12 players, but they play more than 30 instruments between them, including some very unusual combinations. At the more serious end, he creates wonderful eerie effects with strange harmonics, flutter-tonguing, glissandi, etc., sometimes extremely quietly, so that the instruments sound totally alien. However, for me the greatest fun comes in the loudest parts, which can be totally deafening! The quieter instruments, such as the violin, viola and guitar, wouldn't be heard at all, so instead he asks the players to play percussion instruments, and they really enjoy themselves! Our concertmaster, Sandy Kott, smashes the giant Tam-Tam (gong) several times, and the guitarist thumps the big bass drum like a heartbeat throughout the double climax. But for me the best is that our soft-spoken principal Viola, Kenneth Stalberg, is given two flexatones, one in each hand, and he makes as much sound as he can, shaking both of them as hard as possible. (I'm sure there is a viola joke in there somewhere!) He told me that he had been practicing playing the flexatone weeks before the first rehearsal. The final noise at the end comes from the pianist who, as well as attacking the inside of the piano with a drum stick, blows a referee's whistle as loud as he can. It is total chaos!
"Max" has written possibly the most difficult music for orchestra that I have ever come across; each part is like a virtuoso concerto solo. Our players are achieving the impossible, by playing all the notes (and in the right order!) perfectly synchronized with each other, whilst still being flexible enough to follow the singers. Our singers are, if anything, even more impressive, because their music is just as difficult, but they have to do it all by memory, while acting and sometimes even while lying on their backs or climbing up and down ladders. When you add all this to an intelligent and clear staging on a striking set that has been magically lit, you have the recipe for something extraordinary!