This commission to mark the BHSO’s 30th anniversary marks a new venture for Alan Smith, most of whose previous output has been choral rather than instrumental works.
Smith’s Ritornello is notable for its angular rhythms and constantly changing metre, the time signature changing in every bar for the first twenty bars. Unlike a symphony, in which the theme develops over the course of the work, we are presented here with a short phrase that is tossed around between the different sections of the orchestra. This form was common in the late 17th and eighteenth centuries. In Baroque music, “ritornello” was the term for a recurring passage for orchestra in the first or final movement of a solo concerto or work. The whole orchestra opens with a refrain- the ritornello, a theme that recurs throughout the whole movement.
In one way, this new work has proved unexpectedly challenging for the violins in particular, used to carrying the melody for all or most of the time. At one point, we find ourselves counting out 15 bars of 7 quavers – as one said, “It’s the bits we’re not playing that are the most difficult”.