Concerts

HCMF 2014: James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen

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Walking away from a concert feeling perplexed about what you’ve just heard is an understandable and inevitable experience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Considering how many risks the festival makes, the diversity and juxtaposition of the programming, it’s pretty much unavoidable (“WTF” would make an ideal accompanying slogan should HCMF ever want one). Both of last night’s concerts resulted in precisely this kind of response, although for somewhat different reasons. Of the two, Simon Steen-Andersen‘s large-scale theatrical work Buenos Aires is the easier to qualify. Performed with admirable/abject dedication by the combined forces of asamisimasa and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, what it demonstrated more than anything was the remarkable breadth of Steen-Andersen’s imagination. Singers and instrumentalists alike were compelled to articulate under various forms of restriction and interference, in a context bounded by three large screens projecting images from various portable cameras, usually physically attached or held by those on stage. But to say what happened is very much easier than to say why; the general undertone is a sinister one, evoking the issue of dictatorship and the way opponents can be dealt with under their regimes and ultimately ‘disappeared’. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Bit20 Ensemble, Cikada Ensemble

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Last night’s and this morning’s concerts had much in common, beginning with nationality, featuring two Norwegian ensembles, Bit20 and Cikada. But beyond this, much of the music in each concert, although stylistically diverse, had a predominant interest in texture as the primary vehicle for their respective endeavours. The results, another aspect in common, were not uniformly successful. Cikada’s account of Jon Øivind NessGimilen, receiving its UK première, could hardly have been more rigorous and purposeful, yet neither of these epithets seemed qualities of the music itself. In many ways the piece is an 18-minute tutti, with minimal instrumental differentiation, all players working toward the same communal end. Which appears to be a series of episodes, characterised by distinct patterns of behaviour, some involving steady changes in tempo, one sounding like a torrent of Shepard tones. That makes them sound more engaging than they really were; their cycles felt hollow, a literal going through the motions, and the Stravinsky-like conclusion made one realise how much the piece seemed to be ballet music. Perhaps something visual would have filled in the blanks left by the music. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Lohengrin, Philip Thomas, Aurora Orchestra

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Not that the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival needs to reinforce its cutting edge credentials, but if it did, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin on the opening night would certainly do it. The piece is cast in a single act—but an act of what? this is the question that pervades the work and abides long after it has finished. The certainties are these: that Sciarrino’s starting point is Jules Laforgue’s story, featuring the figure of Elsa, a “virgin in distress, falsely accused of murdering her brother”, and that the music is performed by 15 players and three singers, the majority of whom are prerecorded and worked into an electroacoustic element, while five of those performers appear on stage alongside, most prominently, a solo voice. Everything else is to a large extent open to interpretation. One implication is that the soloist is Elsa, the performance physically informed by the plethora of intense emotions resulting from her fraught situation. Yet her words—always fragmentary, often expressed extremely quietly—encompass those of other characters too, in addition to portions of narrative. Putting that ambiguity on one side for a moment, the five on-stage players could be read as familiars of the soloist, and even, as the work progresses, emotional/psychological avatars, channelling aspects of her state of mind (particularly at the very end, when her voice becomes tightly constricted). Back to the ambiguity: the overall impression is that this is all taking place in the crazed, delirious mind of the woman, for whom the fragmentary, ephemeral recounting of events might be personal (i.e. she is Elsa) yet could equally be distorted/co-opted ‘memories’ from a story she perhaps once heard (i.e. she has reimagined herself as Elsa). Read more

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One more gig

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An event i unconscionably failed to mention in my recent gig article is the latest DIVAContemporary concert, taking place this Saturday, 22 November, at Weymouth College’s Bay Theatre, on the south Dorset coast. These concerts are curated by one of the UK’s most ceaselessly energetic and imaginative composers, Marc Yeats, on this occasion featuring flautist Carla Rees, oboist Paul Goodey and clarinettist Sarah Watts. They’ll be performing music by established figures, Salvatore Sciarrino, Elliott Carter and Violeta Dinescu, alongside works by Yeats and a variety of younger composers selected for the concert series, including Richard Stanbrook, Benjamin Graves, Aaron Holloway-Nahum and Mic Spencer, as well as myself: my work for solo flute, ‘unredeemed’ self-) portrait(in the form of an eagle, one of the pieces to have emerged from my ongoing PhD composition studies, will be receiving its world première.

This concert series has the added bonus of being streamed live over the internet, so if you can’t attend (as i can’t, being nearly 300 miles away in Huddersfield at the time), you can at least be there in spirit. Full information here.

Gigs, gigs, gigs

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It’s November, and i’ll initially skip over the elephant in the month to flag up a very interesting concert series going on in Manchester. Curated by undergrad composer Jack Sheen, it goes by the Excel spreadsheet-friendly title ddmmyy, seeking to make each event literally that, an event, conceived and customised in sympathy with the music contained therein. The next concert in the series is in a little over a week’s time, on Sunday 16 November in the RNCM’s Carole Nash Recital Room, and it promises an interesting selection: a new work from Laurence Tompkins, Larry Goves’ A glimpse of the sea in a fold of the hills and Laurence Crane’s Octet. As all good new music concerts should, there’s a pre-concert talk at 6pm before the kick-off at 7.30pm. Future concerts in February and April next year will be including works by Bryn Harrison, Michael Finnissy and Berio alongside music by RNCM-associated composers. Ambitious and also rather stylish in presentation, it’s clearly a concert series well worth checking out; the flyer with info about all their forthcoming concerts can be seen/downloaded here.

And now, of course, to the pachyderm: in two weeks’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will be springing into action for another round of the unexpected, the challenging and the downright discombobulating. i’ll be there for the full ten days this year, and will be reporting back on as much as my mind and ears can cope with. It’s almost nonsensical to single out highlights in a festival where every event is a highlight in itself, but the choice of James Dillon as this year’s Composer in Residence is hugely mouth-watering; both of the festival’s weekends feature his work heavily, the former with the London Sinfonietta and BBC Singers premièring a new large-scale work, Stabat Mater dolorosa, the latter with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra taking on another new work, Physis I & II and an existing piece, Andromeda, before pitting the Arditti Quartet against all seven—that’s all seven—of Dillon’s string quartets. i know, right? i’ll also be particularly looking forward to premières from, among others, Liza Lim, Simon Steen-Andersen (whose Black Box Music remains one of the most astonishing things i’ve seen/heard at HCMF in recent years), Christopher Fox, Naomi Pinnock and Monty Adkins; Adkins will also be presenting his beautiful electronic work Rift Patterns (my review of which is here). One of contemporary music’s most alluringly dark clarinettists, Gareth Davis, will be playing a major new work from Elliott Sharp called Sylva Sylvarum; his wonderful rendition of Sharp’s Foliage at Bristol New Music earlier this year makes this an unmissable performance. Apartment House will be performing Brian Eno, Arne Deforce and Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio will be performing a live version of their interesting recent album Hephaestus, Ryoko Akama will be giving the world première of a new work by the great Eliane Radigue, and nyMusikk Bergen will be tackling Sciarrino’s frankly bizarre opera (of sorts) Lohengrin on the festival’s opening night. But i’m also especially looking forward to music by composers entirely new to me, including Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Joan Arnau Pàmies, Øyvind Torvund, Bjørn Fongaard and Ferran Fages. Unsurprisingly, some of the concerts are by now sold out, but many are still available – full information and bookings here. i trust it won’t leave me wordless, but i fully expect to be left speechless.

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen

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Festivals come and festivals go, and Cheltenham—just like Bristol New Music a few months back—imaginatively opted to end not with a bang but on a high. It came courtesy of Norway, with the immaculate combination of Trio Mediaeval, three female singers with voices lifted straight out of the Middle Ages, and one of the most versatile trumpeters of our age, Arve Henriksen. The fruits of their collaboration, heard within the majestic space that is Cheltenham College’s Chapel, were as breathtaking as they were unexpected. For a little over an hour, they together weaved a tapestry of sound that integrated early music from throughout Europe, both sacred and secular, with avant garde and experimental elements, including electronics. What this was not—and the lengthy, articulate programme note from the Trio went to some lengths to elaborate this—was an attempt to present early music with an affected air of ‘authenticity’, but instead to embrace the unknowability of such ancient music and reinvent it at each performance. As such, it becomes something simultaneously ancient and modern: Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Pärt & Tavener, A Candlelit Tribute to John Tavener

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In a rare instance of pedagogical insight, my A-level music teacher once declared, “You can’t put composers into boxes; they have a tendency to get out”. It’s true, yet to some extent we all tend to do it, in our efforts to try and make sense of the musical landscape in front of us. In the case of composers Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, they tend to get that treatment from both directions, those who have striven to market every last pound out of them as well as those who think every last note they write is nothing but the most sanctimonious drivel. Two concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival this week featured large doses of both composers’ music. The first, at Tewkesbury Abbey, was given by the Hilliard Ensemble with the BBC Singers, the Carducci String Quartet and a collection of instrumentalists; it was followed two days later with a late evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, featuring four string quartets: Cavaleri, Celan, Gildas and Hermes. Together, they provided a fresh opportunity for consideration and appraisal of both composers’ work.
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