Concerts

Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Pärt & Tavener, A Candlelit Tribute to John Tavener

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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.
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Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Fidelio Trio, The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, Tokaido Road

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Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways and for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences and memories from the past. The most frustrating and patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland and Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint and simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focused lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin and cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work and second première: Gavin HigginsThe Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after and inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical and nostalgic weight. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: An Evening with Nicola Benedetti

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Once upon a time, it bore the proud title Cheltenham Festival of British Contemporary Music; for the last 50 years, it’s simply been Cheltenham Music Festival. Even though it has to a large extent yielded to the essentially conservative musical taste that pervades this part of the Cotswolds (as a Cheltonian myself, I can say that without compunction), Cheltenham has evolved into a festival where music old and new sit side by side, with many concerts featuring at least one contemporary work. There have been times, over the years, when this ancient/modern adjacency has felt forced, even apologetic. However, last night’s event, in our rather grand Town Hall, was nothing of the kind. Read more

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LCMF 2014: The Music of Bernard Parmegiani

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Festivals acquire a significant part of their character from geographical context, and London Contemporary Music Festival could hardly have picked a better location for their three-day exploration of the music of Bernard Parmegiani. Second Home, a new performance space in Shoreditch, is just off the road—and thereby infused with the smells and atmosphere—from Brick Lane, a perfect environment for Parmegiani’s music, laden with its own unique blend of spice, heat and fragrance. Parmegiani’s death late last year was more than just a profound blow to fans of acousmatic music, it was a better-late-than-never wake-up call to the realisation that the entire world of electronic music, in all its multiplicitous guises, had lost one of its most forward-looking practitioners, blessed with a combination of imaginative and technical skill largely unmatched by his contemporaries (and many of his successors). That wouldn’t sound like such a bold statement if more people were aware of the astonishments to be found in Parmegiani’s music. Hot on the heels of BEAST’s celebration last month, LCMF have provided considerable additional momentum to the urgency for an in-depth re-appreciation and appraisal of Parmegiani’s output, an appraisal that surely cannot fail to reveal him as a compositional pillar of the twentieth century, and perhaps electronic music’s most radical visionary to date. Read more

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The Start of an Era: Bristol New Music 2014

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Ordinarily, finding yourself traipsing along cold, dark, damp streets from concert to concert of cutting edge music, you’d expect the time to be late autumn and the place to be Huddersfield. Except this time it was the streets and venues of Bristol that were the focus of attention, for the inaugural Bristol New Music festival, three days packed with an impressively diverse line-up of the great and the downright remarkable. Bigging it up last week, i opined that it looked all set to become the HCMF of the south west, and there is, as it turns out, a connection, as Huddersfield supremo Graham McKenzie has provided what he described to me as “curatorial advice” in getting BNM up and running. Yet while in some ways his fingerprints could be detected all over the weekend, Bristol had an atmosphere and a vibe quite distinct to that of Huddersfield. It’s not insignificant, i think, that the word ‘new’ has been used in favour of ‘contemporary’, the latter carrying with it stronger connotations of the concert hall. BNM did have plenty of concerts taking place in familiar concert halls—the festival is, after all, a collaboration by five of Bristol’s principal venues: Arnolfini, the Colston Hall, St George’s, Spike Island and Bristol University—but more often than not, they either weren’t presented as, or didn’t feel like, familiar concert hall events. Often this was rather refreshing; sometimes, not so much. Read more

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An acousmatic revelation: BEAST – Pioneers of Sound, Birmingham

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Last weekend Birmingham was treated to what will surely be regarded as one of the highlights of the 2014 electronic music calendar. Presented by Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), Pioneers of Sound was a 3-day festival primarily exploring works by three of the central figures of acousmatic music, François Bayle, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Parmegiani. What made the weekend so special and so poignant was that only two of that triumvirate could be there to present their music; the absence of Parmegiani (who died last November at the age of 86) was conspicuous and keenly felt throughout the weekend. Read more

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HCMF 2013: John Zorn day

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How do you solve a problem like John Zorn? How do you reconcile the disparate works of a composer equally at home in the worlds of (among others) free jazz, avant garde experimentalism, choral, noise rock, easy listening and hardcore, and whose music moves freely, even wilfully, between these worlds at whim? That, i imagine, is the question that many have found themselves asking when confronted (and it often is a confrontation) with Zorn’s music. But, surely, the question ought to be: why are not more composers interested in drawing on such a multiplicity of styles and manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, and i say this both as a composer and as a listener—hell, and simply as a human being—to be daunted and intimated by the work of John Zorn. It’s not just the variety that’s impressive, it’s the fecundity: Zorn spills out new works out a rate that’s difficult to keep up with. Personally, i always have suspicions with composers who produce at this kind of rate; “Milhaud syndrome” we could call it, and it isn’t hard to find contemporary examples, where the emphasis in their work is entirely tilted towards activity rather than achievement.

On the one hand, i don’t believe at all that Zorn is someone in whom that syndrome manifests itself; i’m familiar with a lot of his work, and some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus and the string quartets Memento Mori and The Dead Man—ranks among my favourite examples of chamber music. On the other hand, there were numerous occasions throughout the entire day devoted to him yesterday at HCMF (in celebration of his 60th birthday) when i found myself once again being challenged at making sense of the apparent incongruities, volte-faces, non sequiturs, leftfield asides and possibly even red herrings that continually rear up. Not so with The Book of Heads, a compendium of 35 etudes for solo guitar, which are so wonderfully unconventional that a regularly strummed chord would have seemed like the most ludicrous gesture imaginable. James Moore—congenial and light-hearted, entirely the right kind of personality to take on these pieces—performed 26 of them, his collection of guitars expanded by an assortment of small balloons, nail files, bowls, a rug, some bottles and a doll, plus a cluster of pedals and devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written and graphic instructions—which is simultaneously highly specific while also allowing the performer a considerable amount of latitude. All relatively short, they nonetheless encapsulate Zorn’s multifaceted soundworld: madcap gestures, allusions, evocations and quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework. Read more

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