Concerts

Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: The Strings of the BBC NOW; Hansel & Gretel

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Sitting in Cheltenham Town Hall last Saturday for a concert of music by the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was a boilingly hot, practically overheating, experience. This was nothing whatsoever to do with the endless waves of sunshine with which we’re currently being treated, and everything to do with the première to which we were being subjected, Richard Blackford’s Kalon for string quartet and string orchestra. Exasperation had begun to set in even before Martyn Brabbins had started to conduct the piece, due to the fact that the performance was preceded by a 20-minute – let me say that again: 20-minute – introduction to the piece by Blackford in ‘conversation’ with Christopher Cook. In reality, it wasn’t a conversation at all, since Blackford responded to each of Cook’s supposedly spontaneous questions with a lengthy pre-written script that he cleaved to as if his life depended on it. It was one of the most excruciatingly cringeworthy bits of narcissistic verbiage i have ever heard, in which anyone who didn’t know better would be forgiven for thinking Blackford was the first person in history to have composed music in two tempi simultaneously (gasp!). His mixture of self-aggrandising pomposity and stilted humour was agonising to sit through, and since i’m not elderly, infirm or retarded, i could hardly have objected more passionately to this kind of overweening spoon-feeding. i honestly felt like asking him if he’d like to wipe my mouth when he’d finished. Read more

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Only Connect 2018 (Part 2)

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From the lofty architecture of Sentralen, day two of the Only Connect festival took place in the infinitely more modest environment of Skippergata, a relaxed café-bar-nightclub with various large and small performance spaces. Though the venue was low-key, the concerts were anything but.

Flautist Alessandra Rombolà’s rendition of Christina Kubisch‘s 1974 Emergency Solos – a work the composer described during the festival as her “goodbye to instrumental music” – was one of the most agonisingly authentic performances i can remember. Kubisch reflects on the stumbling blocks, barriers and expectations that confronted her as a woman musician at the time by inflicting ever more hindrances on the flautist: thimbles on all the fingertips, causing regular jams on the keys; playing on just the headjoint with a condom placed over the end – subsequently used as a bladder to elicit groaning squeaks; stuffing the instrument into a gas mask, resulting in increasingly desperate in- and exhalations, the flute buzzing and producing strained blurts of pitch before finally dying; forced to put down the instrument in order to adopt a defensive posture behind boxing gloves; and attempting to play ‘Silent Night’ while wearing mittens. Read more

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Only Connect 2018 (Part 1)

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At contemporary music festivals one becomes accustomed to expecting the unexpected. However, in the case of Norway’s Only Connect festival, which took place last weekend in Oslo, expectations were overturned in no small part by the weather, due to the country experiencing its warmest May in over 70 years, basking in constant sunshine and 28°C temperatures. As a consequence this was new music not only at its most exciting, but also at its sweatiest, for performers and audiences alike. Organised by nyMusikk, Norway’s 80-year old centre for experimental music and sound art, Only Connect’s two days of concerts took the festival name seriously, arranging the concerts such that each day was essentially a journey round or through a single space. Read more

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The Tolmen Centre, Constantine: Kevos – From this world to the next

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The extent to which contemporary music is well-represented in ‘the provinces’ of the UK, away from major cities, is extremely variable and in the case of Cornwall it’s not really pushing a point to describe it as being almost non-existent. Kevos (Cornish for ‘contemporary’), a six-piece ensemble formed in 2016 by Patrick Bailey (who directs the group) and dedicated to new music, is therefore not merely an honourable exception to the rule, but something altogether more rare and vital. Nominally based in Truro, in the middle of Cornwall, Kevos take a peripatetic approach to their concerts, performing as far afield as Newlyn to the west, Falmouth to the east and the lovely Kestle Barton arts centre to the south (not far, in fact, from the most southerly point of the British mainland). Kevos’ geographical scope is matched by the repertoire they take on, which in the last year has included music by Steve Reich, Alison Kay, Berio, Charlotte Bray, Richard Causton and Judith Weir. Kevos clearly set their sights ambitiously high, and deserve huge amounts of kudos and encouragement for what they’ve achieved thus far.

A few nights ago i was fortunate to catch the last concert of their current season, titled ‘From this world to the next’, this time taking place at the Tolmen Centre in the tiny village of Constantine. Kevos’ concerts occasionally feature electronic music alongside instrumental works, and they opened with Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Whenever i’m about to be confronted by this piece – so familiar and, composed in 1980, increasingly un-contemporary – i instinctively wonder whether it has anything left to give. Personally speaking, i’ve heard it in practically every possible context, both in concerts and at home, in small halls and vast spaces, through speakers and headphones, in its original 8-channel version and condensed down to stereo. Yet when the piece plays and the bell and the boy sing out once again, i find that that familiarity is at once reinforced and completely undone. Somehow it continues to speak with incredible freshness and vitality; despite its 38 years of age, it could almost have been composed last week. Furthermore, despite not having the finest of sound systems, its rendition in the Tolmen Centre – heard in its full, 8-channel glory – was nonetheless compositionally crystal clear, demonstrating Harvey’s sense of inquisitive play in his treatment of harmonics and morphemes, as well as the work’s sublime balance of densities and registers. The polarised conclusion, high cluster-chords intoned over the low tolling bell, was so striking it suggested that not only does Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco have plenty more to give, but that we never really know the piece in its entirety; just like all those complex overtones of the Winchester bell on which the work is based, there’s always so much more to be discovered within. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 2)

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One of the defining features of the Estonian Music Days is its openness to including decidedly unconventional concert situations. Last year’s Obscure Avenues, a two-hour experience during which we were blindfolded and led around to various performance spaces, remains among the most radical and memorable musical encounters i’ve ever experienced, and while the 2018 festival perhaps wisely didn’t attempt to top that, it had its fare share of surprises.

The opening night of the festival saw Flame Sounds, a short open-air performance from composer Liisa Hirsch with Australian fire artist Chris Blaze McCarthy. Surrounded by four microphones, Blaze acrobatically wielded a succession of implements – a mixture of bars and chains – that almost looked as if they’d been borrowed from Tallinn’s museum of mediaeval torture instruments, each one burning in a unique way. These were the basis for Blaze’s physical choreography, with Hirsch in turn capturing and processing the sounds into a network of billowing noise formations, projected out via four speakers surrounding where we were standing. Considering this was part of a music festival, it was a shame that the emphasis was almost entirely on Blaze’s actions rather than on Hirsch’s sonic results – Blaze abruptly moved on throughout, despite Hirsch’s music continuing – making for a frustrating, though visually exciting, performance. But what we experienced nonetheless made an interesting connection with the festival theme of ‘sacred’, elusive sounds emerging from the merest contact of fire and air. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

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A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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