BBCNOW/Zhang – Malala's message is set to music

Rian Evans
Tiny dynamo … BBCNOW principal conductor Xian Zhang. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

This BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert marked International Women’s Day with the premiere of a BBC Radio 3 commission, Kate Whitley’s Speak Out, setting words spoken by Malala Yousafzai in her 2013 address to the United Nations Youth Assembly.

From Yousafzai’s historic call for worldwide access to education, Whitley chose four key statements for a text focusing on the power of the written word in the struggle against oppression. Symbolically, the opening words, “Let us pick up our books and pens”, were sung by children’s voices – Côr y Cwm choir – with the BBC National Chorus of Wales then embodying the words of Yousafzai, speaking not for herself “but for those without voices”.

The simplicity of the vocal setting contrasted with fast instrumental cascades, in turn contrasting with slower reflective chordal passages. The most impassioned tone was in the climactic and emphatic assertion that “we speak out”. Interpolating sudden silences in the closing section, which should have added drama, instead broke up its ultimate impact; nevertheless Yousafzai’s message was properly honoured.

Baiba and Lauma Skride were the soloists in Mendelssohn’s early Double Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings, with the sisters’ virtuosity and lyrical lines sustaining interest where the music spun on too long. On the podium Xian Zhang, the BBCNOW’s principal guest conductor, was never less than a tiny dynamo and, in a fiercely committed interpretation, she made the dark and blazing colours of Zemlinsky’s symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau the highlight of the evening.

  • Broadcast on Radio 3 on 9 March at 7.30pm, then available on iPlayer.
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