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
Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. Read more
For new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival, the key phrase yesterday was “transfigured time”. Time in the sense of history, as two of the concerts directly explored, confronted, embraced and challenged contemporary music’s relationship with instruments, images and idioms from the past. The afternoon event at Parabola Arts Centre featured the Goldfield Ensemble and Langham Research Centre in a concert that unfolded as a long-form electroacoustic audiovisual meditation on these ideas. The conjunction of sound and sight often proved problematic; Arlene Sierra‘s music, receiving its first performance, written to accompany Russian avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren‘s 1946 silent Ritual in Transfigured Time (from which the concert took its title) rather optimistically opted for a bald, minimalistic collection of recurring gestures and motifs that established an aural unity jarringly at odds with the film’s bold tilt-shifts and narrative evasiveness. Deren’s visual language is admittedly gestural in this work to some extent, but its palette of actions and contexts, combined with their allusive distance–not to mention her insistence that form should be ritualistic—is broader and more demonstrative than the rooted and increasingly monotonous music Sierra provided for it. Even more problematic was the presentation of Edgard Varèse‘s 1958 masterpiece Poème électronique which recreated the work’s original presentation at the Brussels World Fair (within a pavilion designed principally by Xenakis), where it was accompanied by a film of fleeting images created by Le Corbusier. Despite being, one assumes, as the composer originally intended (one assumes), it nonetheless works against the music in two respects. First, the visuals simply diminish the prevailing modernity of Varèse’s music, bringing to mind similar audiovisual works involving composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Bernard Parmegiani, where the film element fails to live up to the scope of the music. That was the case here, and secondly, rather than coming across as a ‘period piece’, Poème électronique instead seemed to acquire an unwarranted hauntological quality, as though it had been executed by Demdike Stare or Ghost Box, curiously militating against the music’s authenticity. Read more
Moving on from exotica, for the last couple of days new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival has been revisiting aspects of the past in order to reflect on the present. Yesterday night, back at Parabola Arts Centre, this was manifested in a pair of chamber operas, performed by Nova Music Opera. i’ll resist the temptation to write about the latter of the two, Thomas Hyde’s That Man Stephen Ward, which ranks as one of the most nauseatingly effluvial dramatic works i’ve ever encountered, and focus instead on the very different experience that was Charlotte Bray‘s Entanglement, receiving its world première. It seems to be the case with contemporary opera that it takes a while to grasp the essential language with which it’s speaking, and while i thought that was the case through the first couple of scenes of Entanglement, it became apparent that it had launched straight into its expressive heart at the outset. Read more
As far as new music was concerned, last Saturday at the Cheltenham Music Festival was characterised chiefly by exotica and sensuality. To a lesser extent the latter was to be found in the late evening gig at Parabola Arts Centre given by Emulsion Sinfonietta, although only three (out of seven) pieces were prepared to eschew being episodically amorphous and/or locked in primitive, rather hackneyed loop chatter. Emulsion founder Trish Clowes‘ Apple Boy appeared at first to be quite simple, but turned out to be extravagantly rich—opulent even—attaining some very impressive tutti textures that were highly individualistic, only held in check by the music’s underlying harmony. The quality of its lyricism was only exceeded by its ravishing beauty. In a change to the programme, a work by Iain Ballamy (that may have been called Chantreys) tapped into similarly lush harmonies in a piece that unfolded like a slow chorale, stately and sumptuous. But highlight of the evening was Luke Styles‘ highly atmospheric Chasing the Nose, doleful despite a persistent funked-up tribal groove; focussed on a wonderfully lyrical bass clarinet line, it expanded into a feisty duet with saxophone at its conclusion; exhilarating and immersive stuff. Read more
Festivals come and festivals go, and Cheltenham—just like Bristol New Music a few months back—imaginatively opted to end not with a bang but on a high. It came courtesy of Norway, with the immaculate combination of Trio Mediaeval, three female singers with voices lifted straight out of the Middle Ages, and one of the most versatile trumpeters of our age, Arve Henriksen. The fruits of their collaboration, heard within the majestic space that is Cheltenham College’s Chapel, were as breathtaking as they were unexpected. For a little over an hour, they together weaved a tapestry of sound that integrated early music from throughout Europe, both sacred and secular, with avant garde and experimental elements, including electronics. What this was not—and the lengthy, articulate programme note from the Trio went to some lengths to elaborate this—was an attempt to present early music with an affected air of ‘authenticity’, but instead to embrace the unknowability of such ancient music and reinvent it at each performance. As such, it becomes something simultaneously ancient and modern: Read more
In a rare instance of pedagogical insight, my A-level music teacher once declared, “You can’t put composers into boxes; they have a tendency to get out”. It’s true, yet to some extent we all tend to do it, in our efforts to try and make sense of the musical landscape in front of us. In the case of composers Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, they tend to get that treatment from both directions, those who have striven to market every last pound out of them as well as those who think every last note they write is nothing but the most sanctimonious drivel. Two concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival this week featured large doses of both composers’ music. The first, at Tewkesbury Abbey, was given by the Hilliard Ensemble with the BBC Singers, the Carducci String Quartet and a collection of instrumentalists; it was followed two days later with a late evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, featuring four string quartets: Cavaleri, Celan, Gildas and Hermes. Together, they provided a fresh opportunity for consideration and appraisal of both composers’ work.