Concerts

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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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 3)

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i mentioned in Part 1 that much of the music at this year’s Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik was either for or revolved around the string quartet. But there was also a collection of works (including three i unfortunately missed due to not being able to stay for the final concert) composed for more diverse instrumental groupings. All of them packed the most almighty wallop, though in the case of Ondřej Adámek‘s Conséquences particulèrements blanches ou noires, one was left wondering whether the Czech composer really has anything new to say beyond wheeling out more iterations of his tired air machine. There’s more to his music than this machine, of course, though the puckish, flamboyant way Adámek utilises it – often clearly intended to be humorous – is by now exasperatingly over-familiar, and in any case, in this particular piece, the machine took centre stage – both musically and literally within the hall (something of a contrast to a piece like Korper und Seele, performed at Donauschingen in 2014, where it was for the most part used more peripherally). The overall tone came across like a movie created from nothing but a string of set pieces, with no narrative to string it all together. The relationship between the machine and the ensemble was essentially an imitative one, the latter picking up the blurts and farts of the former and turning them into a kind of avant-cartoon music. Yawn. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 2)

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In the late evening of the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik‘s opening day, inside the town’s small but elegantly decorated Johanniskirche, the JACK Quartet gave the world premières of a pair of works of an entirely different disposition from that of Ferneyhough and Birtwistle, heard earlier that afternoon.

Italian-Swiss composer Oscar Bianchi‘s Pathos of Distance essentially re-programs the string quartet such that the cello becomes a conspicuous rogue element. Through a mixture of whirling, clicking, whirring and croaking wald teufels (a.k.a. forest devils or, most appropriately, frog callers) and more protracted, harmonic- and tremolando-laden bowed materials, the upper strings were clearly well-disposed to work together, sharing and imitating. Whereas the cello – visually enhanced by Kevin McFarland’s unique attire, jacket-less with shirt sleeves rolled up – took on the role of ‘bovver boy’, grinding, twanging, buzzing and poinging his strings, de- and re-tuning them, often situated four or five octaves below the rest. Both the exploration of this relationship – which did vary, and at times all four players were clearly united – as well as Bianchi’s intricate and imaginative textural narrative were engrossing, right up until the somewhat ritualistic final minutes, including a wave of ‘roars’, a viola and cello duet (the viola now also detuned, and played with a cello bow!) and a concluding flurry of ratcheting. Thoroughly immersive and, in the best possible sense, entertaining. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music), Germany’s annual three-day blow out celebrating the newest iterations of the idiom. It was my first experience of the festival, and i have to say my initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The definition of ‘chamber music’ is treated with considerable flexibility, ranging from solo pieces to works for moderately large chamber orchestras, and the presentation and performance standard of the concerts – not surprisingly, considering its reputation – were never less than outstanding, staged in superb venues, showcasing some of the finest contemporary music specialists in the world. As for the music, which was hugely varied, for the most part the same could be said of the featured composers. For the most part. Read more

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St Peter’s Church, Drogheda: James Dillon – The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments (World Première)

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It shames me to admit that, until February this year, i’d never heard of Louth Contemporary Music Society. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous that i hadn’t: for the last seven-or-so years they’ve been putting on fascinating concerts featuring music by, among many others, Terry Riley, György Kurtág, John Zorn, David Lang, Sofia Gubaidulina, Michael Pisaro, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Tan Dun, Alvin Lucier and Éliane Radigue, performed by the likes of Musicircus, Kronos Quartet, Carducci Quartet, Ian Pace, Trio Mediaeval, Garth Knox and the Hilliard Ensemble, as well as several of the aforementioned composers themselves. Not being aware of such fantastical goings-on seems entirely absurd. Yet on the other hand, not only is pretty much everyone i’ve spoken to about them in the last few months equally unaware of these concerts, i’ve not encountered any promotion or discussion about them in the usual new music places. Perhaps the shame lies elsewhere. Either way, it’s time to shout out loudly about what’s really going on on the east coast of Ireland, and it’s largely thanks to the tirelessly enthusiastic one-man-bandery of Eamonn Quinn, co-founder and curator of LCMS, whose efforts have at last been celebrated with his being awarded the 2018 Belmont Prize for Contemporary Music (Alex Ross won the prize in 2012), a belated but very richly deserved acknowledgement of Quinn’s exceptionally open-minded and energetic approach to concert curation. Read more

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