Concerts

Cheltenham Music Festival: Ritual in Transfigured Time, Ukes and Moogs

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For new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival, the key phrase yesterday was “transfigured time”. Time in the sense of history, as two of the concerts directly explored, confronted, embraced and challenged contemporary music’s relationship with instruments, images and idioms from the past. The afternoon event at Parabola Arts Centre featured the Goldfield Ensemble and Langham Research Centre in a concert that unfolded as a long-form electroacoustic audiovisual meditation on these ideas. The conjunction of sound and sight often proved problematic; Arlene Sierra‘s music, receiving its first performance, written to accompany Russian avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren‘s 1946 silent Ritual in Transfigured Time (from which the concert took its title) rather optimistically opted for a bald, minimalistic collection of recurring gestures and motifs that established an aural unity jarringly at odds with the film’s bold tilt-shifts and narrative evasiveness. Deren’s visual language is admittedly gestural in this work to some extent, but its palette of actions and contexts, combined with their allusive distance–not to mention her insistence that form should be ritualistic—is broader and more demonstrative than the rooted and increasingly monotonous music Sierra provided for it. Even more problematic was the presentation of Edgard Varèse‘s 1958 masterpiece Poème électronique which recreated the work’s original presentation at the Brussels World Fair (within a pavilion designed principally by Xenakis), where it was accompanied by a film of fleeting images created by Le Corbusier. Despite being, one assumes, as the composer originally intended, it nonetheless works against the music in two respects. First, the visuals simply diminish the prevailing modernity of Varèse’s music, bringing to mind similar audiovisual works involving composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Bernard Parmegiani, where the film element fails to live up to the scope of the music. That was the case here, and secondly, rather than coming across as a ‘period piece’, Poème électronique instead seemed to acquire an unwarranted hauntological quality, as though it had been executed by Demdike Stare or Ghost Box, curiously militating against the music’s authenticity. Read more

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BCMG, CBSO Centre: Weir, Bedford, Baker, Maxwell, Skempton, Woolrich, Martlew

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Both the title of last night’s BCMG concert, ‘Remembering the Future’, and its prevailing tone emphasised a looking back, and with good reason, as this was the final concert in Stephen and Jackie Newbould’s long tenure running the ensemble. Thankfully, that didn’t cause the evening to sag into mere nostalgia, focusing instead on the world premières of four new commissions, prefaced by a pair of works from BCMG’s repertoire. The ensemble was reduced in size on this occasion to a mere seven players, making the concert more than usually intimate. Read more

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John Pickard – Symphony No. 5 (World Première)

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It’s not often that, partway through an orchestral concert, i find myself imagining i’m a German paraglider. But that’s precisely how i felt yesterday evening in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, during the world première of the Fifth Symphony by Bristol-based composer John Pickard. Not just any paraglider: Ewa Wiśnierska, who in 2007 famously became trapped between two thunderstorms, and subsequently found herself in an airborne hell, subjected to an almighty battering that lasted 3½ hours, during which she was propelled to an altitude of almost 10 kilometres, well above the height of Mount Everest. Pickard’s symphony lasted a mere 30 minutes, but it still gave me more than just an inkling of what Ms. Wiśnierska must have experienced.

The piece found itself in curious company, preceded by a pair of works that, although by no means as ferocious, were in their own ways just as animalistic. That’s not an adjective one tends to hear applied to Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, but ever since i was first subjected to the piece as an unsuspecting sixth-former, it’s always seemed entirely appropriate. Elgar’s cello cuts one of the most pathetic protagonists in the entirety of music; it whines like a bitch, squeals like a pig, bleats like a forlorn little lamb. People loftily proclaim all this to be ‘valedictory’, but this is an animal that deserves — needs — to be put out of its misery post-haste. But no, the orchestra unthinkingly, deplorably, allows it to ramble on incessantly for half an hour, offering superficially sombre utterances of sympathetic regret. After almost a century of farcical, fawning, flattering, fulsome, false adulation, it’s high time the Cello Concerto was called out for the ugly, moping piece of dilapidated dirge-tripe that it is. Soloist Alban Gerhardt presumably did his best to find some humanity in it, but it was hard to tell among the precarious intonation and lack of melodic connectivity emerging from his instrument (not exclusive to Elgar, they also blighted his encore). Before this abject travesty had come William Walton‘s Johannesburg Festival Overture, a work causing one to reflect that, prior to the emergence (and dominance) of Benjamin Britten, Walton sounds like the only British composer who actually seemed to enjoy himself. The tales of being sent tapes of African music for “inspiration” are at best a conceit; the piece is seven minutes of complete and utter Walton, a triumph of joy, vivid and jarring colouration and melodic and structural misdirection, all delayed resolutions, false cadences and madcap maracas. An unbelievably wonderful bestial romp, delivered to perfection by the BBC NOW with conductor Martyn Brabbins looking as though he might start dancing at any moment. Read more

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Commemorating Milton

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Last week saw the centenary of the birth of American composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt continues to be a neglected figure, and personally speaking, the anniversary served to remind how little i know of his music and how rarely i’ve encountered it over the years. Those in a similar situation will no doubt be interested in the Babbitt Centenary Concert taking place tomorrow evening at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space in New York. The concert, which will also be video-streamed live, is being given by the NY-based Cygnus Ensemble, and features two works of Babbitt’s – including Swan Song No. 1, written specifically for Cygnus in 2003 – alongside music by students and colleagues of Babbitt, all world premières. There’ll also be a pre-concert interview with soprano Bethany Beardslee-Winham, for whom Babbitt composed numerous works, including Philomel, Vision and Prayer (also being performed in the concert), Du, and A Solo Requiem.

The complete programme is listed below; more details can be found at the Cygnus website and the live stream (which is free) will be available at livamp.com/cygnus. The concert starts at 7:30pm local time, which means a late night for those outside the US who want to catch it as it happens, but for everyone else it’ll be available to stream afterwards at a more congenial hour.

Milton Babbitt – Swan Song No. 1 / Vision and Prayer
Charles Wuorinen – Cygnus
Paul Lansky – Just Once
Konrad Kaczmarek – Toggles and Triggers
Jonathan Dawe – Glass Harmonica
Frank Brickle – Ab nou cor / Piazza Piece / City of Orgies
David Claman – To the Master of the Meteor

 

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HCMF 2016: looking forward – Georg Friedrich Haas

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It’s been announced this morning that the Composer in Residence at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will be Georg Friedrich Haas. His work has been an occasional feature at HCMF in the past, nowhere more spectacularly than in the 2013 UK première of in vain, a piece concerning itself with endless states of transition, with an added air of theatricality through having all of the lights in the performance space extinguished at various points.

HCMF 2016 will include three UK premières: Klangforum Wien will present The Hyena for ensemble and narrator (featuring the composer’s wife, Mollena Williams-Haas), the Ardittis – who else? – will be performing the Ninth String Quartet, while the Hannover Trombone Unit will take on Haas’ Octet for Eight Trombones, composed last year. All three of these performances will be taking place in the opening weekend, ensuring the festival begins with a hefty wallop.

Tickets for these events will go on sale later this month. With this year’s Proms promising little more than lumbering predictability and blandness, it’s encouraging to have a much more exciting prospect on the horizon. More info about HCMF in due course.

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BCMG, CBSO Centre: A Portrait of Benedict Mason

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Portrait concerts are rarely so eye-opening or indeed eye-popping as BCMG’s for the composer Benedict Mason given at the CBSO Centre on Sunday evening. The point of such concerts is obvious, but it’s hard in hindsight to determine whether or to what extent this one really demonstrated a coherent idea of its subject. In some respects, they hadn’t made this an easy objective, featuring just two works by Mason bookending music by Charles Ives.

The first, Nodding Trilliums & Curve-Lined Angles, a work commissioned and premièred by BCMG in 1990, and directed on this occasion by Ilan Volkov, has timbre as an overriding concern. The six movements are both characterised by and named after the respective sources that dominate them: Xylophones, Rattles, Drums, Toys, Claves, Vibraphone. They act a bit like windows opening out onto vividly depicted, self-contained worlds, and despite their generally conservative character, with echoes of Stravinsky here and there, these worlds are convincing and enticing. By turns one encounters exhilaratingly motoric jollification; ticklish music pieced together from an array of nervous tics; terminally unstable music that, due either to ineptitude or inebriation, keeps falling over; an apparent sunrise over an impossible zoo, the gentle, mellifluous context of the former filled with strange ululations, calls and whistles of the latter; an exercise in engineered misalignment, triggered and exacerbated by the four percussionists walking around the space like politicians clamouring for support, advocating wildly different policies on tempo; and finally a place of the purest magic, where everything has turned to liquid, dripping, flowing, splashing and glinting as its music sloshed around the space, coloured by the work’s most complex harmonic palette. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Cheltenham 2016, ddmmyy, BCMG, Perks Ensemble + John Wall

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There are some interesting concerts coming up in the short- to mid-term. Looking ahead to this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, which runs from 1–17 July, there are as usual many events focusing on contemporary music. Trombone whizz-kid Christian Lindberg will be premièring his new concerto for percussion and trombone alongside Evelyn Glennie, Ex Cathedra present James MacMillan‘s large-scale Seven Angels in Tewkesbury Abbey, Langham Research Centre team up with the Goldfield Ensemble for a concert featuring Varèse, Arlene Sierra, Kathy Hinde and Tristan Murail, and there’s an evening showcase of Sally Beamish‘s music given by Red Note Ensemble. In addition, throughout the festival is a series called ‘Keyboard Inventions’ including recitals of contemporary music with and without electronics from pianists Zubin Kanga, Dave MaricSarah Nicolls and Clare Hammond. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a chance to experience the ultimate work written in response to breaking up with a girlfriend, Erik Satie‘s Vexations, lasting from midday on the final Friday until the following morning. Positively loads to enjoy; full details can be found here.

Late April sees the start of the latest round of ddmmyy concerts, beginning with an eclectic evening in the diverse company of, among others, James Saunders, Tim Parkinson, Jennifer Walshe and Jürg Frey. It’s followed in May with a pair of installations by Matthew Sergeant and Tom Rose, and in June with a particularly mouth-watering recital given by Michael Finnissy and Birmingham clarinettist Jack McNeill, featuring the world première of Finnissy’s Einfältiger Liederkreis. The concerts are taking place at The Yard Theatre and Café Oto; missing any of them feels like it would be something of a crime.

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group will be taking a turn for the genuinely unexpected on 1 May with a portrait concert for Benedict Mason, including the world première of Mason’s new work Horns Strings and Harmony. And in June they’ll be presenting a première-packed evening with brand spanking new music from Luke Bedford, Richard Baker, Zoë Martlew and John Woolrich alongside pieces by Judith Weir and Howard Skempton.

Finally, i must flag up again the Kammer Klang gig at Café Oto on 5 April, featuring Perks Ensemble in an oh-so-rare performance of Michael Finnissy’s “above earth’s shadow…” followed by a recital given by electronics maestro John Wall, who’ll be presenting one of his masterpieces, Cphon, in its entirety followed by a 20-minute improvisation.

So many good things to look forward to.