Concerts

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 The piece was occasionally a little withdrawn and perhaps a touch backward-looking, but its lightness was very attractive, as was the nicely unpredictable waywardness it exhibited, which kept sidestepping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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HCMF 2018: Sciarrino: Carnaval, hcmf// mixtape

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The last couple of years have been good for one of the UK’s most impressive new music groups, Explore Ensemble. Two years ago, i first heard them at HCMF on ‘Shorts’ day, giving a gripping account of Gérard Grisey‘s Talea, and they returned to the festival last year to give a full-scale concert including ambitious music by Enno Poppe and Patricia Alessandrini. Last night, Explore returned to HCMF for the third time, teaming up with EXAUDI vocal ensemble and conductor James Weeks for a performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s vocal cycle Carnaval. At this rate goodness only knows what they’ll end up doing next year.

When i’ve written previously about Sciarrino’s vocal works, such as the 12 Madrigali at the 2017 Louth Contemporary Music Festival and (much more briefly) the Responsorio delle Tenebre in my 2012 Lent series, it’s been impossible not to address his very particular approach to writing for voices. Specifically, his unique kind of halting delivery, articulating the text as brisk, tiny utterances that seem to be dragged down by their own weight the moment they emerge from the singers’ mouths, somewhere between a moan and a sigh. It’s an approach that, on first hearing, can seem extremely mannered or even stylised, but the more one spends time with it, acclimatising to it, the more one realises that this is not an affectation but the basic vernacular or dialect of Sciarrino’s vocal language in these pieces. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Divertimento Ensemble, Stockhausen: Oktophonie

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When writing about United Instruments of Lucilin’s concert last Tuesday i noted how the only thing the four works they played had in common was their complete dissimilarity to each other. Yesterday evening, in St Paul’s Hall, we experienced the opposite: four pieces of Italian music performed by Divertimento Ensemble that, while obviously unique in most important respects, seemed very much to inhabit similar environments, or perhaps even disparate regions of the same soundworld.

A great deal of the material in the concert could be characterised as either timorous or, at the very least, hesitant. In Francesco Filidei‘s Finito ogni gesto, a work commemorating author Edoardo Sanguineti, it was merely a starting point. Soft clicks, breathy pitches, distant resonances, rumbles from somewhere beneath (or beyond) – all of this was enticing enough, but then Filidei introduced something really marvellous: a cello in the guise of a musical saw, articulated (by Martina Rudic) as a terminally unstable melodic entity. It was one of the most lovely openings of anything i’ve heard all week. It was just a starting point, though, a melancholic overture to what became much more aggressive. Filidei set up large, forceful rolling waves of tumult, a sequence of climaxes crowned by popping balloons and a wild growling horn solo. An intense manifestation of grief, perhaps, one that became achingly poignant in the work’s closing moments, reduced to quietude and whistles, solemn drum thuds, and the accented turning of pages. Read more

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