Cheltenham Music Festival

Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: Quartet Premières; Berkeley Ensemble; Juliana

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Last Wednesday at Cheltenham Music Festival saw the world premières of no fewer than four new string quartets, courtesy of the Ligeti Quartet. Interestingly, all of them were cast as single-movement structures, though in the case of his String Quartet No. 2Michael Zev Gordon presented something akin to a swatch book, the work comprising an episodic collection of diverse patterns and hues. Mildly engaging, not really containing anything unfamiliar or unconventional, these episodes seemed like short exercises in library music, like the underscore cues for a slightly quirky British drama (think The Camomile Lawn). Somewhat lacking in substance and a bit directionless and monotonous in its later stages – some of the ideas were protracted longer than they warranted – it nonetheless had its moments. Similarly incidental was Ayanna Witter-Johnson‘s Mento Mood, a pretty, cheerful piece invoking Jamaican mento music. In many respects it sounded more like an arrangement than an original composition per se, though there were some nice passages where the material extended beyond the instruments, requiring the quartet to sing and vocalise.

Much more involving than these was Sarah RimkusLe Dian, a piece taking inspiration from Gaelic-language musical traditions. Rimkus sets up a diatonic world, powered primarily by cycling rising minor thirds, from which the instruments then broke away, led by the cello. This established a pattern of harmonic side-steps resulting in nice collisions and ambiguity along the way yet never interrupting the constant flow of the material. A later episode, where the rising motif was explored at length, was truly hypnotic. The most outstanding of these four new quartets was Bethan Morgan-WilliamsGhost Tongues. In keeping with the referential aspect that permeated all the pieces, Morgan-Williams’ music appeared to be derived from folk music, though in the most marvellously oblique and obscure way. It would be simplistic – no, it would just be plain wrong – to say that the piece was ‘folk-like’, yet at all times there was something about the material that, in ways difficult to articulate or even understand, made an oblique but undeniable connection back to a folk origin. This fluid, uncanny sense of familiarity was sometimes expressed in exploded form, the music pulled apart into small fragments, before reforming or shifting into a kind of prismatic lyricism, conveying melodies and harmonies as if refracted through the instruments. This back-and-forth between poles of extended lines and atomised pizzicatos were mirrored by the work’s expressive scope, Morgan-Williams not afraid to let the music become pensive, even allowing it to fall silent a couple of times. Though episodic, it all felt part of the same underlying argument, concluded in a lovely ‘dirty’ major seventh chord, as though a cadence had been forced onto the end. A really brilliant piece that i can’t wait to hear again. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: 21st Century String Quartet, The Hallé

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Here’s a suggestion: if a composer can’t summarise their programme note in fewer than a couple of hundred words, that’s a problem. Is that terribly controversial? Judging by what we were given at the Cheltenham Music Festival last Saturday, it is. This is not a local problem, though, it’s something that manifests itself all too often, composers seeking to convey at length not merely the inspiration for their music but a blow-by-blow account of what happens in it. It’s interesting that they deem this necessary. Does it suggest a lack of faith either in the audience or, more worryingly, in the music? It would be strange for a writer to introduce their novel with a breakdown of the structure and key plot-points; likewise with a programme note full of aural spoilers, it’s impossible to be drawn in and surprised by the music, as we already know what’s coming. Increasingly, programme notes seem akin to the abstracts that preface academic papers, and that’s not necessarily the ideal model for the concert hall. There are two caveats to this: first, it’s not just contemporary music that’s treated to such ‘programme essays’, and second, of course, one’s not obliged to read them at all. Of the first caveat, this is partly to do with the understandable desire for a degree of historical contextualisation, but regarding the second, i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: Tenebrae

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What is it with British contemporary choral music? i found myself asking that question constantly during the fourteen minutes of Footsteps, the work that opened last night’s Cheltenham Music Festival concert in Tewkesbury Abbey, given by the vocal ensemble Tenebrae. It perhaps goes without saying that one makes a double set of allowances when considering contemporary music for choirs. Within British life and culture, such music is focused almost entirely within the realm of religious services. If you’re thinking the next step of this argument is to stress how such choirs are invariably amateur, and therefore unable to handle the more imaginative machinations of contemporary musical thought and practice, then (up to a point) i don’t really believe this to be true. Speaking as one who has both participated within and directed choirs, the religious faithful of the British Isles are among the most culturally conservative people i have ever encountered, for whom dissonances are iniquities to be temporarily endured until the resolution that will – must! – surely come.

This, as far as i’m concerned, is the primary allowance that one is forced to make when considering British contemporary choral music. Much of it can be regarded as functional, and as such needs primarily to please the people for whom it functions. i’ve said this before, quite a while back now, but tuning into any weekly broadcast of choral evensong on Radio 3 is to travel back in time and step into the aural equivalent of a museum, music trapped in aspic, and this is for the most part no less true when contemporary music is included. The amateur aspect is the secondary allowance one usually has to make, but this obviously doesn’t apply when the music is written for choirs of a high standard, such as Tenebrae. But wouldn’t it be nice if composers of this stuff could challenge the necessity of these allowances, reach a little further and employ some of that spirit of adventurous, unafraid, fundamental questioning of the conventional way of doing things that supposedly underpins – indeed, inaugurated – the very faith for which their music is being written? After all, institutions, if they progress at all, do so at a pace that—well, to call it glacial would be a compliment (just look at the Church of England’s ongoing inability to accommodate, let alone accept, gay people in their midst). So what is it with British contemporary choral music? What on earth are their composers so afraid of? Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: E STuudio Youth Choir

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In the wake of my experiences at this year’s Estonian Music Days, extended in my recent weekend of articles focusing on the country’s choral music, yesterday’s late evening concert at St Matthew’s Church in Cheltenham was a real treat. It featured a choir new to me, the E STuudio Youth Choir, formed in 2012 and based in Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu. The concert was something of an ambassadorial occasion, marking the country’s presidency of the European Council and exploring a mixture of home-grown and international contemporary repertoire. Three conductors – Eliisa Sakarias, Jaanus Karlson and Külli Lokko, who was originally responsible for founding the choir – took turns in a programme that’s best described as a mixed bag of confections.

Put another way, if one thing characterised the thirteen pieces performed in the concert, it was a quality of sweetness, music that sought expression in varying degrees and interpretations of consonance. (While Estonia does, as i’ve written about previously, have a decidedly experimental side, it tends to rear its head less in choral music.) Arvo Pärt was of course well represented – one wonders if an Estonian choir will ever be so courageously far-sighted as to exclude Pärt from a concert programme – opening the evening with his short but well-known setting of the Marian hymn Bogoroditse Dyevo, followed by his much longer take on the Triodion. It was useful to have the pieces in this order, as Bogoroditse Dyevo makes the point well that there’s more to Pärt than just luxuriating in solemnity (if that’s not an oxymoron), the choir positively dancing through the hymn’s rushing material, playful and full of happiness, and treated here to the most transparently clear articulations. The Triodion, more trademark Pärt, posed the question of whether the similarity of utterance exhibited in the three odes worked to reduce or even nullify its intended effect. Yet if one regards it in the same way as separate portions of a common liturgy – surely the only way to regard them – the question more-or-less evaporates. Describing it like that may sound off-putting, but neither the music in this piece nor the choir’s rendition of it at any point suggested the kind of piousness that can render concert performances of sacred music so distasteful. Everything was measured, enabling Pärt’s subtle word-painting – particularly the second ode’s large-scale climax – to speak with real immediacy. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: 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 focusing 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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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: Moments of Weightlessness, Music for Piano and Film

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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

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: Ritual in Transfigured Time, Ukes and Moogs

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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, 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

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