Concerts

Nowy Teatr, Warsaw: Wojtek Blecharz – Body-Opera

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At the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the world première of Body-Opera by Polish composer Wojtek Blecharz didn’t exactly go to plan. Located at The Hepworth Wakefield – and set up somewhat hurriedly in the aftermath of the awarding of The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture that had recently taken place – an ensuing electrical fault caused a cluster of power points to fuse and melt, leading to the abandonment of the performance. As a consolation prize, the audience was treated to a short excerpt. From the composer’s perspective, it appears to have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Listening to him talk about the piece a couple of weeks ago, prior to its second performance at the Nowy Teatr in the Mokotów district of central Warsaw (a beautiful building converted from a warehouse for refuse vehicles), Blecharz clearly believes the problems experienced at Huddersfield were ultimately beneficial. He spoke about not seeing the work as ‘closed’, and to prove the point he has subsequently taken the opportunity to develop it further, in the process greatly expanding it from one to almost two hours’ duration. Developed through a pair of previous works, Transcryptum (2013) and Park-Opera (2016), Blecharz has a very specific outlook and purpose for Body-Opera. He wants to shift the focus from the performer to the audience, creating what he describes as a “shared contemplation of sound”.

To this end, picture the scene: neatly arranged in the four quadrants of the space were 100 mats, one for each member of the audience, with accompanying blankets and pillows. Within each pillow, a loudspeaker, channelling sound directly into the ears and skull of its supine recumbent. Beside the mat, a small black box containing sundry paraphernalia for use during the piece. Across the middle of the space, in one direction, a collection of large suspended metal thundersheets, in the other, something akin to a catwalk with a collection of percussive accoutrements. And above the space, in the centre, a large screen upon which various abstract shapes and film clips appeared. Blecharz’s urge to involve the audience – removing the division between them and the stage – stems from a desire to restore a social or communal aspect that he believes to be lost from conventional operatic production. But the word ‘opera’ in the work’s title is clearly intended to connote the original meaning of the word, the plural word “work”, in addition to its specifically theatrical implications. Blecharz’s Body-Opera consists of a similar collection of discrete, contrasting works that together comprise the whole. What exactly that whole is, or is intended to be, is somewhat harder to articulate. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: 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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HCMF 2017: looking forward

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i’ve just returned from a few days in Poland, and before i get started on catch-up reviews of Cheltenham and the Proms, at a press conference in Warsaw a couple of days ago a slew of new announcements were made about this year’s 40th edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Last month, it was announced that there’s to be the world première of a large-scale new piece by James Dillon performed by his compatriots Red Note Ensemble, as well as the first UK performance of Brian Ferneyhough‘s even more large-scale work for string quartet and ensemble Umbrations, by Ensemble Modern and the Arditti Quartet (my review of the world première is here). There are also going to be concerts focusing on Linda Catlin Smith, featured in the first part of Another Timbre’s recent Canadian Composer Series, and the late Pauline Oliveros; each composer’s music is explored in two concerts, Smith’s by pianist Eve Egoyan and Philip Thomas with the Bozzini Quartet, Oliveros’ by Riot Ensemble and the combined forces of ICE Ensemble, Distractfold and the wonder that is Fritz Hauser.

Newly-announced on Monday are events pertaining to the ongoing collaboration HCMF has had with Polish music since 2015, now entering its third and final year. This October marks the 60th anniversary of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio, the work of which is going to be celebrated in an audio-visual exhibition at Huddersfield Art Gallery running for the duration of the festival, in addition to a series of accompanying talks and performances. Music by one of the Studio’s key figures, Bohdan Mazurek, will be presented in a pair of late-night concerts in Bates Mill Photographic Studio, given by Jacek Sienkiewicz and Valerio Tricoli respectively. Also in the Photographic Studio will be a laptop and tape concert by German musician Thomas Lehn, performing music by Bogusław Schaeffer. Beyond this, there’s another extremely rare opportunity for UK audiences to hear Zbigniew Karkowski‘s music: his 40-minute work Encumbrance, for voices and electronics, will be performed by Gęba vocal ensemble, in addition to music by Kryzysztof Knittel and Antoni Beksiak. Dai Fujikura has written a new piece for the Polish Radio Choir, the second of a two-part work, which will be receiving its first performance in this complete version, alongside works by Polish composers Wojtek Blecharz (about whose Body-opera i shall soon be writing) and Agata Zubel, and Riot Ensemble will also be performing a new work by Nikolet Burzynska.

So, here’s how the festival looks so far (some times/locations still to be confirmed); more info coming soon.

Friday 17
  • James Dillon: new work (World Première) / Red Note Ensemble (St Paul’s Hall)
Saturday 18
  • Brian Ferneyhough: Umbrations (UK Première) / Ensemble Modern & Arditti Quartet (St Paul’s Hall)
  • Focus on Linda Catlin Smith / Eve Egoyan
  • 23:30 Jacek Sienkiewitcz (electronics) plays Bohdan Mazurek (World Première) (Bates Mill Photographic Studio)
Sunday 19
  • Focus on Linda Catlin Smith / Philip Thomas & Bozzini Quartet
  • 15:00 Dai Fujikura – two-part work (Part 1 – UK Première, Part 2 – World Première), works by Wojtek Blecharz & Agata Zubel / Polish Radio Choir (Huddersfield Town Hall)
Tuesday 21
  • 17:00 Zbigniew Karkowski – Encumbrance (UK Première), works by Kryzysztof Knittel and Antoni Beksiak / Gęba Vocal Ensemble (St Paul’s Hall)
Thursday 23
  • 21:30 Thomas Lehn (laptop & tape) plays Bogusław Schaeffer (Bates Mill Photographic Studio)
Friday 24
  • 17:00 programme includes Nikolet Burzynska – new work (World Première) / The Riot Ensemble (St Paul’s Hall)
  • 23:30 Valerio Tricoli (electronics) plays Bohdan Mazurek (World Premiere) (Bates Mill Photographic Studio)
Saturday 25
  • Focus on Pauline Oliveros / ICE Ensemble, Distractfold & Fritz Hauser
  • Focus on Pauline Oliveros / The Riot Ensemble

Cheltenham Music Festival: 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: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: 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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Louth Contemporary Music Society: Silenzio Festival, Dundalk

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In terms of outlook (non-partisan), commitment (total to the point of absurdity) and above all its track record during the last eleven (essentially unsung) years, Louth Contemporary Music Society unquestionably deserves to sit alongside the very best contemporary musical festivals. Its most recent, Silenzio, which took place last weekend in Dundalk, on Ireland’s east coast, only cements that fact yet more solidly. The focus on this occasion was the music of Salvatore Sciarrino – making his first appearance in Ireland – coupled with the world première of a substantial new work from Swiss composer Jürg Frey. At first glance, the pairing of Frey and Sciarrino seemed somewhat arbitrary, though as things turned out there was an unexpected aural connection in at least one piece (though it didn’t exactly work in either of their favours). The festival was once again populated by a spectacular collection of interpreters of contemporary music, including clarinettist Carol Robinson, flautist Matteo Cesari, Quartetto Prometeo, percussionist Simon Limbrick and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart.

The festival began in the narrow confines of Dundalk Gaol with an evening of Jürg Frey’s music. It opened with As imperceptibly as grief, a setting for solo soprano of Emily Dickinson’s poem, and in hindsight it was this opening song that carried the greatest weight of the concert, though not due to anything radically different about its music. As one might have expected from Frey, the piece unfolded in a calm, unhurried manner. Initially, the space was ‘setup’ via the soprano – Hélène Fauchère, in a tour-de-force display of infinite control – slowly placing evenly-spaced quasi-isolated notes in the air. Two ‘parts’ were present: syllables of the text on one pitch, open vowels a semitone higher, an oscillation that soon became more melismatic. As in many of Frey’s pieces, it was permeated with a sense of profundity, one that was heightened by these moments of melisma. At one point in particular (before the text moved from the afternoon to dusk), the song became captivated in an extended ‘ooh’ episode that suggested pure ecstasy, as though Fauchère were caught in a private emotional reverie or possessed by a vision. On a more musical level, it displayed an intense enjoyment of sound itself, both its mere presence and its tangibility – tactility even – wanting to linger over its pitches as well as the movement between them. Read more

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