Concerts

Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto

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Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn’t say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC’s broadcast. However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is. The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. In the concert hall, Koh’s violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it’s good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast.

Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it’s a piece rather difficult to unpick. In some ways, the textures are simpler and more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic. It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings and natural harmonics. The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, and then halt. The soloist’s first cadenza is wiry and (in the best sense) aimless, its twists and swoops more a result of fun than purpose. But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, and she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that’s urged on by orchestral stomps. Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, and a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement’s climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting. The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin’s trademark use of percussion. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion: Acrostic-Wordplay, Double Concerto, Gougalōn (UK Première) & Rocanā

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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Interrobang – works by Elliott Carter, Paul Dolden, Javier Álvarez & more

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Anyone in the Birmingham area tomorrow night (Monday 13th) might be interested in the next concert my ensemble, Interrobang, is giving. The concert will feature a number of works by established composers, intermingled with four pieces by students and graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire (where Interrobang is based). It includes a new work of my own, composed for BCMG at the end of the last year and explored in a workshop with them in the spring, but not yet performed in public. Here’s the programme:

Etelka Nyilasi – Visions in the Northern Sky for 6 players
Simon Cummings – Intense quick dream of sentimental groups with people of all possible characters amidst all possible appearances for string sextet (World Première)
Ryan Latimer – The Canon of Medicine for piano trio (World Première)
Elliott Carter – Scrivo in Vento for solo flute
Paul Dolden – In a Bed Where the Moon was Sweating. Resonance #1 for clarinet & tape (UK Première)
Veleka Algar – From Silence for string sextet (World Première)
Javier Álvarez – Temazcal for maracas & tape

The concert starts at 7.30pm and once again takes place in the Conservatoire’s Recital Hall. A map is below; those with GPS should punch in the postcode B3 3HG. If any 5:4 readers are present, do make yourselves known to me during the interval or afterward—would be great to see you!


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The Irrepressibles – St Martin’s in the Bullring, Birmingham

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i can’t let the week come to an end without making some comment about a concert i attended last Wednesday in Birmingham. Hosted by the church of St Martin’s in the Bullring—finally getting itself really sorted as a top-notch concert venue (my ensemble Interrobang performed there back in May)—it was the second in a short series of gigs given by the remarkable group The Irrepressibles, whose debut release Mirror Mirror has been jangling around in the 5:4 jukebox for most of this year.

The prospect of support acts always sets me on edge; many’s the time my eager anticipation for a concert has been dissipated by a support act unworthy of or unsuited to the occasion. Not so in the case of Thomas Truax, one of outsider music’s more ingenious and genuinely entertaining figures, every bit as irrepressible as the headline act. He brought a cluster of his trademark handmades, including ‘Mother Teresa’ (replete with “removable limbs”), the off-kilter rhythmic patter of which lends Truax’s songs a wonderfully unbalanced quality, and perhaps his most famous accoutrement, the ‘Hornicator’, a cross between a brass instrument and a gramophone horn, which Truax sang through and percussively struck with gusto Read more

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Tim Benjamin and Francis Poulenc – Purcell Room, 23/09/2010

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Last Thursday i journeyed to London for a small-scale concert at the Purcell Room. On paper, the concert was being given by the ensemble Radius, but in practice only the pianist was present, supporting a quartet of singers. i’ll admit to being disappointed about that; i’ve not encountered Radius before, so it was frustrating to come away still having not encountered them. Two pieces were performed: Poulenc’s one-act opera La Voix Humaine preceded by the UK première of a new work by Radius’ director Tim Benjamin titled Le Gâteau d’Anniversaire.

Benjamin’s work can’t, in any accurate sense, be called an opera, comprising a single scene of barely 30 minutes’ duration. What Benjamin has produced, in fact, is akin more to a dramatic scena, except that it’s intended to be funny, so i guess we should rightly call it a dramatic scena buffa (or something like that). What unfolds is a dream sequence in which the protagonist, Louis, a baker by trade, receives visions from a pair of women who, at length, coax, encourage and downright insist that the reluctant Louis disregard bread-making for a time and bake them a cake. In the epilogue, Louis is awakened by his sisters, only to be reminded it’s their birthday, and that he’d agreed to provide his services to mark the occasion; no resistance from Louis this time, and the preparations begin. That’s it; except that Tim Benjamin’s lengthy programme note expounds the notion that the work is a “theatrical investigation” into “the oppression of, and liberation from, accepted convention and custom” as well as “the power of the subconscious to influence the conscious self through the medium of dreams”. Read more

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Interrobang: Steve Peters – The Webster Cycles

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Two months ago, i reported that my ensemble, Interrobang, was to perform Steve Peters‘ remarkable ambient work, The Webster Cycles. It’s a work that’s entranced me since 2008, when it was released on CD, more than 25 years after its original composition date. It gets its name from the fact that the musical material originates in the Webster dictionary; Peters has taken all words that include just the letters A to G (being musical notes), arranged them in alphabetical order, and given them to players as a musical score. The words are grouped into seven columns, according to their first letter, and the result looks like this (click to see full-size):
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Interrobang – works by Ryoji Ikeda, Simon Cummings/Charles Tournemire and Steve Peters

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know of my interest in the music of both Ryoji Ikeda and Steve Peters. Later this week i have the privilege of directing works by both of these composers, at the next concert given by my ensemble, Interrobang.

In the first half, we’ll be presenting the UK première of Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous Op. 1, one of his only works for instrumental forces (alongside Op. 2 and Op. 3, also for strings). Op. 1 has been played by Ensemble Modern, but doesn’t seem to have been taken up by other groups, which seems strange considering how lovely it is. Also in the first half will be the first performance of my own L’Ensemble Mystique (Book One), a suite of arrangements of music by Charles Tournemire, for chamber orchestra. Tournemire’s music is all based on plainsong, and the original chants will also be sung at the concert, putting my arrangements into context. The second half is entirely given over to the UK première of Steve PetersThe Webster Cycles, the CD of which came almost top in my Best EPs of 2008. It’s a mesmerising piece that takes words from the Webster Dictionary and turns them into abstract melodic fragments, which overlap each other in aleatoric fashion.

The concert takes place at 7.30pm on Thursday 6 May, in the Recital Hall of Birmingham Conservatoire. There will also be a repeat performance of The Webster Cycles the following day at St Martin’s in the Bullring, starting at 12.30pm. It would be great to see any readers of 5:4 at these concerts—do make yourselves known if you’re there!

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