Concerts

Dark Music Days 2019: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Yrkja

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Judging from the way it’s usually discussed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that – overwhelmingly inspired by the country’s uniquely dramatic combination of earth, water, ice and fire – Icelandic music was all about, and only about, nature. It’s therefore interesting, in hindsight, to note that it wasn’t until the sixth day of the Dark Music Days that the subject of nature even crossed my mind. However, when it finally did, last Thursday evening at the concert given by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daníel Bjarnason, it didn’t merely cross my mind but practically filled it to capacity. Hitherto, my impression of Icelandic contemporary music, irrespective of my opinion about individual pieces, was one of variety, music characterised by diversity and difference. Whereas now, sitting in Harpa’s large Eldborg Hall, hearing five substantial Icelandic orchestral works, i was staggered by their similarities. Textures, textures everywhere.

The archetype for this use of texture was demonstrated with considerable subtlety in Lendh by Canada-born, Iceland-based composer and cellist Veronique Vaka, the first of three world premières in the concert. Her programme note was all about nature, concerned with the sensory impressions of landscape, inspired particularly by the geothermal area at Krýsuvík (in south-west Iceland). In general – the primary aspect of this archetype – perception of the overall mass effect was of much greater importance than individual actions. Thus the orchestra articulated a network of shifting textures punctuated regularly by swells, as if something were churning and bubbling in the music’s depths. This led to the sensation that the orchestra was an organism slowly breathing, ripples running across its surface with such variety of colour and shape and detail it brought to mind (to switch metaphors) the changes in pigmentation on the skin of a chameleon. Music that focuses exclusively on large-scale textural impressions like this can often become drab and unfocused, yet Vaka instilled in Lendh a real sense of pent-up power and potential: its ‘climaxes’ were barely larger than the swells that had preceded them but packed almost the same weight as a full-on tutti due to the palpable implication of what they could unleash if they really wanted to. A striking and lovely piece.

The same couldn’t be said for María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Oceans, also a world première, the ideas of which could have been lifted straight out of a movie. The title of the work – which the composer claims “came early in the process” but just before the festival was still being listed as ‘new work’, so perhaps was more of an afterthought – seemed arbitrary, entirely unrelated to what was essentially a tired exercise in basic, reheated filmic tropes. This was texture at its most ineffectual and clichéd, and while Oceans had its moments – including one where in the midst of a climax the harmony became complicated and briefly clustered – it otherwise lacked any significant memorable ideas. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Zoë Martlew

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One of the plagues that continues to afflict most contemporary music festivals is ‘première-itis’, an acute obsession with presenting loudly-trumpeted world premières at the expense of providing opportunities for second, third or indeed nth performances. It was a relief, therefore, that this year’s Dark Music Days (which was otherwise similarly infected) included a number of concerts ​with virtually no premières at all, the first of which was a recital given last Thursday by UK cellist Zoë Martlew.

The concert took place in the imposing cuboid space of Kaldalón Hall, part of Reykjavík’s flagship concert hall complex Harpa, with a programme focusing on Danish and Norwegian music. However, it was a piece by English (Denmark-based) composer Juliana Hodkinson that turned out to be the most flamboyantly memorable, though not primarily for musical reasons. Titled Scrape, it lives up to its name by stipulating that the cellist should scrape heavily not just their instrument but also against a piece of metal, which Martlew had realised with a cheese grater tied to her right foot. The first attempt to perform the piece ended after just a few seconds when Martlew’s bow was spectacularly shredded, its horsehair loosely flapping around; it was hard to tell whether this was a direct consequence of its grinding against the strings or just a coincidence. The second attempt, Martlew having dashed off-stage for a replacement, was more successful inasmuch as the bow held together, although the cheese grater was now doing its best to rebel against Martlew’s actions, turning at 90° to her foot, thereby making it difficult to control. Whether all of this effort was worth it is a good question. Scrape could (charitably) be described as a celebration of the essence of music-making, of the friction essential to the production of all sound, though the way its relentlessly screeching soundworld soon lost much of its impact and power plus the lack of a cogent shape or structure made the piece an exceedingly dull experience. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Icelandic Guitar Trio

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On Wednesday, the Dark Music Days moved out of Reykjavík to the arts centre of Hafnarborg in the neighbouring town of Hafnarfjörður, where the Icelandic Guitar Trio – Þórarinn Sigurbergsson, Þröstur Þorbjörnsson and Svanur Vilbergsson – gave a recital featuring three native works alongside music from the UK and USA.

The Icelandic pieces shared a general tendency towards the conservative and traditional. This was most demonstrably the case in Fimm Skissur [Five Sketches] by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, composed in 2016 but only now receiving its first performance. Everything about it felt rooted in convention, from the fast-slow alternations of its movements to the language of its lyricism, which veered between cheerful Classical simplicity and a more intricate Baroque tendency. The piece was most interesting in the two slow movements where the music sounded least like an exercise in pastiche. The Andante won me over due to the fastidiousness of its counterpoint, which proved hypnotic, while the Lento exhibited a soft delicacy that was particularly lovely at its dying away conclusion. The rest was simply too generic and impersonal to make any kind of meaningful connection. Ari Hálfdán Aðalgeirsson‘s Gaia, another première, was also characterised by fastidiously-composed material, as if each and every note had been positioned and aligned with the greatest care – though never sounding remotely finicky or theoretical. The piece was occasionally a little withdrawn and perhaps a touch backward-looking, but its lightness was very attractive, as was the nicely unpredictable waywardness it exhibited, which kept sidestepping one’s expectations. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Dúplum Dúó

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Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.

Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Schola Cantorum, Kúbus

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The most taxing challenge facing Reykjavík on Sunday was not, surprisingly, the -9°C temperatures permeating the city that day, but the evening chamber recital at the Fríkirkjan given by the group Kúbus. The day before, Georg Friedrich Haas had made 70 minutes feel like less than half of that; on this occasion, Kolbeinn Bjarnason made 30 minutes feel like 1,000. It was bad enough that he chose (possibly in an attempt at humour, but who can tell?) to preface his Musik der Unzeitlichkeit II with a 5-minute all-Icelandic spiel that appeared to be an anal-retentive description of each of the work’s sections – immediately followed by a two-sentence English version decrying how unnecessary the preceding spiel had been. LOL? Even worse that he saw fit to keep punctuating the piece with witless theatrics involving metronomes placed within glass recepticles that were then filled with water – one of which agonisingly took several minutes to complete. By comparison, the fact that the rest of the music consisted of the most generic and cliché-ridden gestures and ideas that one has heard a million times before felt only mildly irritating, but the sum total of the work was one of the most infuriatingly stupid, cheap, pretentious, pointless and creatively vacuous musical experiences to which I’ve ever been subjected. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: The Riot Ensemble

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It could hardly be more perfect that the 2019 Dark Music Days – Iceland’s premier contemporary music festival – should have begun last Saturday in complete darkness. This was in Reykjavík’s Nordic House, where the most valiant effort had been made to block out every trace of light for The Riot Ensemble’s world première performance of Georg Friedrich Haas‘ 70-minute Solstices.

Darkness has been a recurring feature of Haas’ work in recent years, from the sporadic lights-out episodes of in vain to the complete blackout of String Quartet No. 10. Every time it occurs in a composition, one is forced to deal with, or at last come to terms with, the darkness, and this was a significant preoccupation during the first few minutes of Solstices. I found myself considering the fact that I often listen with my eyes closed during concerts, and the extent to which this differed from the darkness being imposed on me. But of course there is a huge difference, not just physical but psychological, between simply closing our eyes (thereby shutting down that sense) and having our eyes open but receiving nothing back.

The second thing I found I had to deal with was the technical achievement happening before me: ten musicians, performing in total darkness and therefore, by necessity, entirely from memory. That’s somewhat mind-blowing of itself. It made me think of other artistic technical achievements – such as the long take camera work of Hitchcock or Alejandro Iñárritu – that also have the capacity, if we (and the artists) aren’t careful, to distract from and take us out of the art being created, due to the surprise and incredulity that they cause. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Arditti Quartet + Jake Arditti

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My 2018 HCMF experience came to an end yesterday in what is now the traditional way, at 1pm in St Paul’s Hall in the company of the Arditti Quartet. Four years ago, they tackled the first seven quartets by James Dillon; on this occasion their concert included the next two instalments, receiving their UK and world premières respectively.

i can remember well how the experience of hearing Dillon’s quartets 1 to 7 at HCMF 2014 (in chronological order) sounded like an exercise in diminishing returns. The earlier quartets were striking and impressive, but became gradually more impenetrable to the point that they simply felt weak and listless. Based on this first encounter with the Eighth and Ninth Quartets, that trajectory isn’t showing significant signs up an upturn. There was some interest to be found in the Eighth, Dillon dividing the Ardittis in two pairs that took it in turns to slither around each other, eventually unifying as a group whereupon their material began to halt and fragment. All of this had something nascent about it, beginning with a soupy miasma and arriving at building blocks, though this was the limit of the work’s scope, ending with the prospect of forming into a tangible idea, its closing moments vaguely cadential. In some respects the Ninth was similar – perhaps even a continuation of sorts – as if extant musical ideas were trying to emerge into its anonymous soundworld: there was the sense of a chord progression poised to break out, though to what extent this was real or just a manifestation of pareidolia is hard to say. Subsequently falling into patterns of simplicity and/or solemnity, broken up rapid passagework either en masse or individually, it was hard not to conclude that, as in much of Dillon’s last few quartets, this was a kind of ‘theoretical’ or even ‘scientific’ music, experimenting with materials, quantities, weights and distributions to see what happens. Considering how much emotional energy and passion is found in most of Dillon’s music, it was strange and disappointing to feel kept at such a distance in these pieces. Read more

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