Concerts

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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Royal Opera House, London: Thomas Adès – The Exterminating Angel (UK Première)

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Among the plethora of quasi-quotations that litter (and that is the right word) Thomas Adès‘ operatic ‘take’ on Luis Buñuel’s cinematic masterwork El ángel exterminador, there was one quotation missing that, had it appeared at the very start, would have made at least the first two acts make total sense: the Looney Tunes opening titles. Surprisingly – and, actually, it was a very pleasant surprise – The Exterminating Angel bears a much closer similarity to Powder Her Face than The Tempest; in terms of compositional technique, his new opera is clearly an extension of The Tempest, but its overall tone and attitude is very much more that of his debut opera. Yet the key word here is ‘similarity’: Powder Her Face was sarcastic but subtle and sophisticated, the bite of its wit matched by an undeniable aesthetic elegance and dazzling compositional ingenuity. Those are not words that suit The Exterminating Angel. From the outset, Adès seems to feel his characters are inhabiting a cartoon, the music often literally following their movements, replete with orchestral crashes to coincide with the character of Raúl being slapped about the face(!). The quotations Adès draws on – familiar fare: waltzes, Spanish outbursts, faux-Romantic piano variations, etc. – don’t so much flesh this out as act like musical Post-It notes to make quick and dirty allusive connections in lieu of something more considered and musically argued.

When not behaving like this, the music regularly took on a curious habit of treading water. It’s interesting to note Adès’ words in his conversation with Christian Arseni (originally published to coincide with the Salzburg première performances, and reproduced on this occasion): “When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C…”. Adès seems to have meant that very literally, producing great tracts of material that one can only meaningfully describe as ‘underscore’. Sometimes this material undergoes the chord progression processes that now typify his work, and in Act 1 in particular they were so aurally transparent that following their movement provided some interest, but elsewhere the music at times exhibited such neutrality that the singers felt entirely disconnected from it, as though skimming above the accompaniment’s surface. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 2)

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In the previous part, i remarked on Estonian music’s apparent distance from compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And while i also remarked that i don’t believe it’s happening in a vacuum, it is demonstrably removed from many of the attitudes that one tends to take for granted in western Europe, and one of the great positives of this is a surprisingly unconventional approach to the presentation of new music. In this respect, to say that the Estonian Music Days is no ordinary music festival is to put it absurdly mildly: they’re prepared to take real risks yet to do so in a relaxed, carefree way in which creative intent is matched with a sanguine attitude of “what happens, happens”.

Modestly unconventional was the ‘meditation’ conceived by Helena Tulve that preceded Thursday evening’s choral concert by Vox Clamantis (reviewed in Part 1). Lasting thirty minutes, this began as we were entering the Niguliste church, and at first was almost unnoticeable, the four performers (including Tulve and fellow composer Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes) sitting at the four corners of the entrance, each nonchalantly and very softly striking the edge of a glass bowl. What was very clear from the start was that, although aspects were indeterminate, the specific pitches used had been carefully selected (after the concert i noticed that every bowl had a sticker in the bottom giving its precise pitch, including cent deviations). The opening oscillated around the interval of a slightly microtonal minor third which persisted as the players began to move down the nave – joined by a fifth performer whose actions were equal parts music and dance – sliding marbles in their respective bowls, initially barely agitating them, creating a constantly-changing yet static pitch cluster. Having moved to stand at the four corners of the audience in front of tables filled with many more bowls, the pitch range now greatly expanded, still sounding indeterminate yet with a sense of finity, stretching the previously-established stasis. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from a few days in Tallinn, attending Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s annual celebration of contemporary music. Coming away from my first encounter with the EMD last year, and reflecting on the experience after, left me with mixed feelings. Estonian contemporary music is almost entirely unknown beyond its borders, with only Arvo Pärt and to a lesser extent Erkki-Sven Tüür being featured in concert programmes, both of them older generation composers (aged 81 and 57 respectively). It’s perhaps easy to understand, then, why the EMD almost exclusively focuses on Estonian music: if they didn’t, one might reasonably ask, then who would? So in this respect it’s worth pointing the finger in all directions away from Estonia, and asking why the interest doesn’t seem to be there. But there’s another aspect to this. The EMD’s attitude of introspective celebration – not so much an outlook as an ‘inlook’ – is perhaps partly responsible for this apparent external apathy. It’s easy to regard Estonian contemporary music, for the most part, as existing in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble, ostensibly drawing on few of the compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Politics has a significant part to play here; Estonia’s complicated history, veering back-and-forth between foreign rule and independence, has resulted, not surprisingly, in a determination to establish and project a coherent national identity, which in some respects lacks the organic sense of development of less bruised nations. This is not to suggest there’s anything inherently artificial about this identity, not at all, but it goes a long way to accounting for the introspection i mentioned, not simply a desire or an impulsion but a necessity to say, boldly, “this is who we are – this is what we sound like”. From an outsider’s perspective, then, a considerable adjustment is needed when approaching this festival in order to contextualise its very particular kind of music-making and not simply regard it as being disinterested in wider contemporary compositional thought. Writing in Tempo back in 2008 (the last time the festival was featured) Peter Reynolds pondered that “Estonian music has tremendous energy and vitality at the present time, but it is not so clear if this can continue to develop if the country continues to operate in a vacuum”.1 As i’ve indicated above and will elaborate upon below, i don’t believe that it is operating in a vacuum, but Reynolds’ point remains a valid and an important one. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Spring 2017

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There are lots of exciting events coming up in the next few months, approaching new music from a plethora of different angles.

Next month the Royal Opera House will be giving the first UK performances of Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Buñuel’s splendidly off-kilter movie. Premièred last summer in Salzburg, it’ll be receiving half a dozen performances at Covent Garden from late April to Early May. With a libretto by Tom Cairns, featuring the likes of (among many others) Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice, Sophie Bevan, John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, and directed by the composer, it should prove quite a spectacle. Well over a decade after witnessing the first performance of Adès’ last opera, The Tempest, i’m still somewhat in two minds about it, so it’ll be fascinating to see where he’s coming from in this new operatic work.

The Another Timbre label is taking over Café Oto for three days at the start of May, with a series of concerts to tie-in with their new five-disc set of music by Canadian Composers (a review of these is coming soon). Works by Linda Catlin Smith, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Marc Sabat, Martin Arnold and Chiyoko Szlavnics will all be featured in these concerts, plus a couple of pieces by fellow Canadian Cassandra Miller and not-remotely-Canadian Jürg Frey. Tickets are £8 a pop or £21 for the lot.

Looking ahead to July, the details of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival have been announced this week. The festival’s engagement with contemporary music – which, let’s remember, was its original purpose – has become highly tenuous in recent years, but there’s one or two concerts to look forward to. At the safer end of the spectrum, Estonia’s E STuudio Chamber Choir will be showing there’s more to their country than just Arvo Pärt, also featuring music by Estonians Cyrillus Kreek and Veljo Tormis. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time with Estonian music during the last year, this is going to be good (though, fair warning, you’ll also need to contend with some Whitacre). Pianist William Howard is performing a recital titled ‘Love Songs’, including works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Piers Hellawell, Howard Skempton, Joby Talbot, Judith Weir and Michael Zev Gordon, a number of them receiving first performances. Joby Talbot’s music is also being performed by vocal ensemble Tenebrae, presenting his hour-long Path of Miracles. And towards the end of the festival, the Piatti Quartet will be presenting music by Joseph Phibbs and Mark-Anthony Turnage plus a new work from Darren Bloom. There are other assorted new works dotted elsewhere, and as ever there’s the annual Composer Academy for early-career composers, this year being mentored by Michael Zev Gordon.

And there are some extremely interesting events beyond these shores. Next month, Louth Contemporary Music Society is presenting the world première of James Dillon‘s latest piece, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments. A work for soprano and a small ensemble of five players, as the title implies Dillon has drawn on ancient texts attributed to Orpheus, alongside poetry from the father of the sonnet, Petrarch, Apollinaire and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The concert is being given by Crash Ensemble with soprano Peyee Chen, who will also be performing a rendition of the Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor (actually by Jennifer Walshe), of which Chen gave a fittingly weird and wonderful performance at last year’s Alba New Music festival. Taking place as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, on Ireland’s east coast, the concert is on Saturday 29 April in St Peter’s Church and tickets are a measly €10.

And in May there’ll be the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, which i’ll be experiencing for the first time. This year’s sextet of concerts is jam-packed with exciting propositions: i’m particularly looking forward to three premières: Brian Ferneyhough‘s Umbrations, The Tye Cycle by the Ardittis, Paul Hübner and the JACK Quartet performing Timothy McCormack‘s Your Body is a Volume and Clara Iannotta‘s piano and ensemble piece Paw-marks in wet cement. Above all, though, it’ll just be great to have the opportunity to encounter totally unexpected music from composers whose work is entirely unknown to me. That’s definitely not something we get sufficient opportunities to do in Britain.

Apropos: i’ll be heading off to Tallinn again early next month for the Estonian Music Days. The festival’s engagement with new music is exceptionally diverse and forward-looking, very much more so than we usually encounter here in the UK. Among this year’s highlights: vocal group Vox Clamantis who (foreshadowing E STuudio Chamber Choir’s Cheltenham gig) will also be performing Pärt and Kreek, together with a new work from Galina Gregorieva; the first performance of Peeter Vähi‘s An April Night’s Dream for keyboards, percussion, phonogram and city sounds will be taking place in the late evening on the roof of the Estonian National Opera house(!); and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir will be giving a thoroughly eclectic concert of works by Jonathan HarveyLigeti and Sciarrino alongside premières from local composers Tatjana Kozlova-JohannesEvelin Seppar and Mirjam Tally. But i suspect the biggest highlight of all will be the event given by the country’s National Symphony Orchestra, in an all-Estonian programme featuring three world premières together with the Fourth Symphony by the great Lepo Sumera as well as Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s Cello Concerto. It’ll no doubt be absolutely exhausting, but wonderful. They really know how to do a music festival in Tallinn.

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Electric Spring 2017

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i was fortunate to catch four-fifths of last week’s Electric Spring festival, Huddersfield University’s annual exploration and celebration of things electronically musical. As usual, attention was focused on a daily evening concert, featuring a substantial programme preceded by one or more relatively brief opening acts. The festival’s emphasis on electronic music felt conspicuously different this year; the connection seemed pretty tenuous in Thursday’s concert showcasing three films (admittedly all including electronically-created or -processed music to some extent, and the event was a tie-in for the university’s Sound and Music in Documentary Film symposium, which was taking place at the same time), as well as drummer Dave Smith’s Saturday gig, which employed little in the way of electronics beyond a few loops, some reverb and a modicum of pitch-shifting. i mention this more as an observation than a complaint: the concerts were no less enjoyable for their relatively minor use of electronics, but it’s fair to say that these two events, in retrospect, seemed more like vanity projects for the particular members of staff who organised them than deeply meaningful contributions to Electric Spring’s general ethos. Or maybe Electric Spring is going somewhere else in future; i guess we’ll see. Read more

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