Advent & Christmas

Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première)

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This year’s commission at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge was from the renowned Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Modal shifts early on in his piece, Christmas Carol, actually sound a bit like Vaughan Williams, but swiftly take on a more familiarly Scandinavian quality (to my mind, often redolent of the Icelandic composer Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson). Boldly opting for homophonic writing throughout, Rautavaara allows the narrative of his text to predominate, weaving a work that is both a story and an exhortation; the constant chordal writing has an undeniable heaviness to it, but Rautavaara’s colourful harmonies keep it fresh. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Roxanna Panufnik – The Call (World Première)

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It’s Advent Sunday, the start of a new Church year, and before you can say “Tis the season…”, here comes the first carol service this afternoon, from – as usual – St John’s College, Cambridge.

Like its big brother, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, this service also features a new commission each year, and for 2010 Roxanna Panufnik was chosen, taking as her text George Herbert’s poem The Call. She adds to the choir a harp, creating an opulent, even heady setting, the continual upward motion of the harp sounding like clouds of rising incense; it’s a gorgeous piece, each stanza bestowed with Panufnik’s trademark rich tonality. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Gabriel Jackson – The Christ-child (World Première)

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The tradition of commissioning a new carol each year for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, continued in 2009, with the renowned choral composer Gabriel Jackson chosen this year. His carol, The Christ-child,  uses an interesting text by G. K. Chesterton (The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap), alternating external observations with parenthetical reflections. Jackson picks up the contrast (each parenthesis ending in soft humming), but placing it within a gradually intensifying context, with the key words “light”, “star”, “fire” and “crown” given especial emphasis; it’s a very successful setting, although the ending feels a little laboured, perhaps even forced (from the composer, not the choir).

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Music for Epiphany and more

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Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany, and it strikes me as strange that there is so little music written for Epiphanytide. Advent and Christmastide are overflowing with possibilities, but composers have clearly not been inspired by this season. It might be that it’s been somewhat vague until more recent times; certainly, the Anglican church has only got its structure and approach sorted in the last 5 years. But i think it’s an extremely powerful period of time, especially as it moves towards its conclusion with the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) on 2 February. My own Nunc dimittis was intended as an anthem for that occasion, rather than for regular weekday Evensongs, and thankfully it’s only ever been performed as such.

Yesterday’s listening was a return to an old favourite: John Oswald. i’ve been interested in him since my early 20s, when i heard a work of his performed by the Kronos Quartet at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (Mach i believe it was called). His “plunderphonic” style is remarkable, and when i first heard Plexure it produced a similar reaction to Venetian Snares: shock, amusement, bewilderment and exhilaration. But today i was listening to something from his very different, electroacoustic style: his 2003 work Aparenthesi. It’s difficult to believe it’s by the same composer; a gorgeous, intense, patient and rapturous meditation, similar to some of The Hafler Trio‘s work. The slowly-shifting soundscape is surprisingly engaging, and i found myself very moved by it.