Proms 2016: Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before.

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Proms 2016: Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky (World Première)

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There were paradoxes at play throughout Anthony Payne‘s new work for choir and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky, given its première at last night’s Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis. Well, paradoxes is one word for them: inconsistencies and/or anachronisms would be another equally accurate way of putting it. First is the matter of old and new. Aesthetically speaking, Payne’s musical language emanates from the 20th century, a mash-up of idiomatic traits from the likes of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton and, occasionally, Britten, all of whom made their presence felt in this piece. Read more

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Proms 2016: Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes (World Première)

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Last week, i finally got round to watching a concert i’d recorded last year celebrating the music of film composer John Williams, featuring highlights from throughout his long career. For better or worse, i couldn’t help recalling that concert again and again during last night’s world première at the Proms of Magnus Lindberg‘s Two Episodes, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In some respects, this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Always a demonstrably accessible composer, Lindberg’s work in the last few years has reached more and more into the kind of musical language associated with movie soundtracks (a quality i’ve pointed out with regard to both Al largo and Era). What was surprising, though, was that the piece was entirely conceived to serve as an homage to the work following it in the programme, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Read more

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New releases: Stefan Fraunberger, Michael Moser, Morton Feldman, John Wall

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Easily the most sonically remarkable new release to have passed through the jukebox in the last month or so is Quellgeister #2 ‘Wurmloch’ by the Austrian sound artist Stefan Fraunberger. This ongoing series of works (#1 came out two years ago, #3 is in progress) focuses on what Fraunberger summarises as “semi-ruined organs discovered in deserted Saxon churches in Transylvania”. Precisely what he does with these dilapidated organs isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that of a Frankenstein-like in extremis battle to resurrect the instrument and enable it, for one final time, to speak. Aural narratives really don’t come more stunningly heroic than this. Having wheezed into life, the organ’s reanimated corpse unleashes barrages of chords that constantly sound unnaturally forced, only sustaining as long as its innards are being ‘squeezed’ (try singing a note for far too long and you’ll get the idea). Weird tangential pitches and upper harmonics regularly bleach these chords, even occasionally suggesting there’s a melody trying to escape from beyond the grave; elsewhere the struggle (for both man and machine) becomes so intense that vast dissonant slabs of compressed noise erupt. On the one hand, it’s shambolic and desperate, but there’s an uncanny beauty both to Fraunberger’s seemingly absurd actions and to the, frankly, amazing results. Read more

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Don’t believe the hype: some brief reflections on ‘greatness’

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i want to respond briefly to Philip Clark’s article ‘Where have the great composers gone?’, as i both agree and in some ways completely disagree with Clark’s unique blend of perspicacity and polemic. When i was an undergraduate, there were frequent references to and discussions about the notional ‘path’ of becoming a composer. This path, put simply, involved getting some notable performances at music college, attending lots of new music concerts in order to make useful connections, and then—the ultimate goal—to get a publisher, supposedly the compositional equivalent of obtaining tenure. During my Master’s degree, this had evolved to the point where most composers agreed that being allied to a publisher was quickly becoming a pretty old-fashioned idea, due partly to the development and ease of typesetting and self-publishing/promotion, and also due to the fact that, by now, the majority of the larger publishing houses were assimilating more and more mainstream music to ensure their profit margins, reducing their desirability to those of a more avant-garde persuasion. During the last few years, i’ve heard repeatedly from published composers (by those same largest publishing houses) about how indifferent, unhelpful and for the most part worthless publishers are to them, and i personally don’t know a single composer for whom getting hitched to a publisher has even been considered for their list of career aims.

i mention all this partly because Clark repeatedly indicates, correctly, that the idea of ‘greatness’ is inextricably intertwined with the world of publishing hype, but more because this evolving outlook brings to earth with an almighty crash the naïve notions from my undergrad days that were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) concerned with the goal of becoming an ‘established’ composer, and one day, with a favourable wind and no small amount of luck (and/or nepotism), maybe even a great one. Perhaps those notions were once vaguely realistic–or, come to that, real—but i doubt it. Composers surely don’t seek greatness, however that’s defined; indeed, speak to many composers privately about their aspirations and experiences, and what you encounter most often is a kind of humble gratitude that their work is being performed at all. Delusions of grandeur, even aspirational delusions, don’t even come into it. And a good thing too; there’s surely something a little odd—and, i believe, misguided—about the desire for greatness, whether that desire comes from composers themselves or from their audiences and commentators. Clark speaks of the glory days of the Huddersfield Festival, when one could hear the music of illustrious figures and occasionally even rub shoulders with them (or, in Clark’s case, stand behind them at an ATM), but speaking personally, every year during HCMF i get precisely the same thrill from being able to engage with music—and, almost always, the composers—that i deeply admire and who, to my mind, are important artists making not insignificant contributions to the development of our craft from a huge variety of perspectives. From the last few years i would (off the top of my head) single out Naomi Pinnock, Aaron Cassidy, Dai Fujikura, Maja Ratkje, Jakob Ullmann, Laurence Crane, Liza Lim, Jonty Harrison, Peter Ablinger, Wieland Hoban, Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen, Eliane Radigue, Monty Adkins, Hèctor Parra, Chiyoko Szlavnics and, yes, even Jürg Frey who, unlike Clark, i would—and did—recognise when i saw him.

Are these composers great? i can only find myself wondering whether that question is even remotely relevant. Certainly, some of those i’ve just named i regard as among the most compelling composers working today. But the very fact that i named so many of them (and that list is absurdly short) underlines the fact that there is a very great deal of fantastic, significant, far-reaching and long-lasting music being composed today, and while i don’t necessarily want to equate ideas of greatness with elitism, seeking to apply the word ‘great’ inevitably starts to limit the field and, thereby, limit the music. For me, and i suspect for many others, both composers and audiences, what’s more to be celebrated is the diversity of angles from which musical expression now comes and the concomitant multiplicity of compositional triumphs. Composers don’t face, as Clark contends, an “existential crisis”; composers are doing what they’ve always done, navigating their own way forward both with regard to their own development and to wider threads of compositional (and extra-musical) thought. Some may find this diversity disorienting or even disheartening, but to my mind it’s that very diversity that i consider to be genuinely ‘great’. This is surely more meaningful than the kind of nostalgic wistfulness that yearns to slap the epithet on one or two figures for special lionisation. Let’s leave that to the publishers, and let’s all remember not to believe a word of it.

Proms 2016: Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 3 ‘Jesus Messiah, save us!’

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Just when you’ve concluded the Proms are little more than schmoozing, emollience, accessibility and tradition, along comes Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Galina Ustvolskaya‘s Symphony No. 3. Regarded superficially—and, tragically, this is the way the majority of commentators regard her work—Ustvolskaya’s music is the antithesis of comfort. She eschews most of the conventions of western art music, typically bringing together unusual groupings of instruments (often timbrally and registrally incongruous) which articulate themselves from within the strictures of an utmost rigid rhythmic grid. Again regarded superficially, she is the ostensible apogee of the cool, aloof, unemotional, detached composer. Which leaves the question of why four of her five symphonies, as well as the three ‘Compositions’ (together covering a period from 1970 to 1990, the last 20 years of her composing life), should be subtitled with overt religious quotations, extended to recited texts in the symphonies. Is it irony? mischief? sacrilege?

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Cheltenham Music Festival: A New Jerusalem

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Wednesday evening in Tewkesbury Abbey, in the company of Ex Cathedra conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, was an encounter with a particular kind of British ubiquity. The music of Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Judith Weir and James MacMillan were brought together in an evening focussing on “A New Jerusalem”, four composers whose work, in the church and concert hall respectively, has become (for good or ill) highly pervasive. In the case of Parry and Howells, hearing them beyond the context of liturgical function revealed above all how much their approach to choral writing persists both in the legacy of 20th century church music and beyond as well as the ongoing choral evensong tradition, which for many years has sounded less like a modern expression of faith than a nostalgic clinging to values (both musical and theological) held by an ever-decreasing minority. Hearing them side by side made for an illuminating comparison. What Elgar was to the orchestra, Parry was to the choir, his music never solely about the text or topic at hand but with omnipresent obeisance to a sense of grandiose occasion looming over everything. (Put another way, what Elgar was to pomp, Parry was to circumstance.) Read more

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