Concerts

HCMF 2017: Red Note Ensemble, Metal Machine Music, Aeolian

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Here we go again (deep breath)…

The opening concert of the 40th edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival immediately gave one pause for thought. What it wasn’t was a conventional wallop, a smack around the ears to wake us up out of our complacency, such as the one given by Jennifer Walshe and the Ardittis twelve months ago (from which i’m still not sure i’ve fully recovered). What it was though, at least in part, was a demonstration of the importance, potential and power of lyricism. If this sounds a bit slight in comparison, it isn’t, for in itself it’s another example of how open-minded HCMF has become under Graham McKenzie’s leadership. i have to confess that, prior to McKenzie taking over, my interest in HCMF had dwindled to nothing, due to how narrow and entirely predictable it had become. Somewhere along the way, the capacity for music to breathe and to provide scope for extended lyrical contemplation got essentially squeezed out. At last night’s opening concert in St Paul’s Hall given by Red Note Ensemble, there was almost a sense of defiance in the way one piece after another contributed to an atmosphere that, by its close, had become almost opulent. Read more

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Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Birmingham Repertory Theatre Studio: Peter Eötvös – The Golden Dragon

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Let’s start at the end. It would be easy to fall into the trap of mistaking Peter Eötvös‘ music theatre piece The Golden Dragon, currently touring the UK in a production by Music Theatre Wales, as a serious, even moving piece. Or, rather, not mistaking it for that (few people, one hopes, are so easily duped), but feeling compelled to regard in that way, as by the end of its 90-minute duration the piece makes very clear that that is what was always intended. In some respects, the subject matter isn’t funny: an illegal immigrant worker – referred to as ‘The Little One’ (played by Llio Evans) – in the titular Asian restaurant develops an excruciating toothache, the tooth is forcefully extracted by the chefs (Lucy Schaufer, Andrew Mackenzie Wicks, Daniel Norman and Johnny Herford), The Little One bleeds profusely and dies, and his body is then chucked into a river. But don’t misunderstand me: when i say the subject matter isn’t funny – and it really isn’t – that’s not because, by contrast, it’s serious either. Everything about the narrative – which is derived from an original play by Roland Schimmelpfennig – is ludicrous to the point of absurdity. Apropos: the work’s primary thread is embellished with various secondary ones of varying frivolity, concerning a pair of stewardesses having a meal, a granddaughter becoming pregnant to the enraged indignation of her boyfriend, and – i’m really not making this up – an ant acting as a pimp, sexually exploiting a cricket. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: BCMG, Nordic Music Days, Alba New Music

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Having packed up for their summer break, ensembles and festivals are starting to get going again in the weeks and months ahead. Most immediately, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is poised to pop the corks in celebration of their 30th birthday. There’s a couple of events happening in London: on 2 September at Wilton’s Music Hall – as part of the Proms season – they’ll be exploring music by John Luther Adams, Messiaen, Maxwell Davies, and Rebecca Saunders, and on 16 September at Milton Court Concert Hall they’ll be tackling familiar BCMG fare, works by Stravinsky, Birtwistle and Knussen, alongside a piece by the group’s 2015/16 Composer-in-Residence, Patrick Brennan. Most exciting, though, is the day of shenanigans that will be taking place in Birmingham on Sunday 10 September. There’s a free afternoon workshop for families, followed by a ‘canal serenade’ including music by Ondřej AdámekRichard Baker and Yannis Kyriakides, and in the evening, a concert at the CBSO Centre featuring more from Ondřej Adámek, Rebecca SaundersInto the Blue and Helmut Lachenmann‘s Zwei Gefühle – Musik mit Leonardo. It’s going to be quite a day. Full details about all these events can be found here.

Later in September, the Nordic Music Days will be making one of its only ventures ever beyond their respective countries, spending four days at the South Bank in London, from 28 September to 1 October. As you’d expect all of the music is by Nordic composers – a mouth-watering prospect in itself – and there’s a considerable amount of it, including works by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a chance to hear her wonderful orchestral piece Aerality), Daníel BjarnasonHanna HartmanØyvind TorvundKaija Saariaho and many, many others whose work is entirely new to me. Many of the performers will be familiar, though: the Philharmonia, Exaudi, Distractfold and the Riot Ensemble will all be taking part. There’s also a conference and seminars discussing various pertinent issues associated with contemporary music, particularly from the perspective of younger composers, in addition to various workshops, an outdoor interactive sculpture and lots more.

And in early October, Alba New Music returns for a welcome second year. Taking place on Friday 5 and Saturday 6 October, this year’s programme includes a performance of Brian Ferneyhough‘s Time and Motion Study II by the duo who created the remarkable DVD recording of the piece, Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold (their documentary about creating the recording, Electric Chair Music, will also be screened); their concert also includes Jonathan Harvey‘s AdvayaFeldman‘s Projections 1 and Helmut Lachenmann‘s Pression. Saturday afternoon brings an opportunity to hear John Wall in action, and in the evening Scottish flute-master Richard Craig will be giving the final concert in St Giles’ Cathedral, including Ferneyhough‘s 1986 bass flute and tape piece Mnemosyne. There will also be various talks elaborating and discussing the music. For more info, keep an eye on Alba’s website and Facebook page.

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 2017: 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