Festivals

Proms 2011: Graham Fitkin – L; Cello Concerto (World Première)

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The music of Graham Fitkin has been featured twice this week at the Proms, both occasions in the hands of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. First came L, a work for cello and piano composed for Ma’s 50th birthday (commissioned by Kathryn Stott, who accompanied the performance), while this evening’s Prom brought the world première of Fitkin’s Cello Concerto. Read more

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Proms 2011: Kevin Volans – Piano Concerto No. 3 (World Première)

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If one thing has dominated the premières at this year’s Proms, it’s the presence of the concerto; thus far, we’ve heard no fewer than six (Dalbavie, Carter, Holloway, Holt, Larcher and Aperghis), with more coming in the days ahead. Monday’s Prom brought yet another concerto into being, Kevin VolansPiano Concerto No. 3, performed by Barry Douglas with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard.

The opening few minutes give a clear indication of what lies ahead, the piano presenting a stabbing ostinato that immediately infects the orchestra, responding in glittering accented chords. The piano then dissolves into a fluid, grace note-strewn passage, bringing proceedings briefly to a halt; starting up again, the sections of the orchestra now take turns to predominate. This is the essence of the piece, and also its unifying aspect, since Volans is not concerned here with conventional notions of material development. He has very different ideas, and indeed, his working method—each day to continue where he’d left off, making no amendments to previous work—is audibly etched into the grain of the music. It neither develops nor evolves; in a sense, it unfolds, but even this doesn’t quite fit; perhaps all one can say is that it just happens, swiftly passing from idea to idea with only the barest of constants. There are occasions when Volans allows himself to revisit earlier material, but for the most part, this concerto is a flight of fancy, restlessly keen to press on, with barely a glance behind. Read more

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Proms 2011: Colin Matthews – No Man’s Land (World Première)

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Sunday night’s Prom brought the world première of a new work from Faber’s finest, Colin Matthews: No Man’s Land for tenor and baritone soli and orchestra. Commissioned by Richard Hickox immediately prior to his death in 2008, it was presented by the orchestra Hickox himself formed 40 years ago, the City of London Sinfonia, directed by Stephen Layton, with soloists Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams. Matthews’ text is by Christopher Reid, recounting an exchange between the ghosts of two soldiers, Captain Gifford and Sergeant Slack, whose bodies hang on barbed wire in no man’s land.

On the one hand, being charitable, perhaps the context was inopportune, coming as it did just a couple of days after Sir Harrison Birtwistle‘s brilliant Angel Fighter (also a work featuring two vocal soloists). But that can only go so far to mitigate the dreadful way with which this piece comports itself; far from striking the dignified stance that Matthews presumably intended, it was instead slowly unveiled as a ramshackle, shoddily stitched together patchwork of wafer-thin attempts at evocation. We’re fortunate—no, we’re blessed—in recent times to have seen the slow, steady rise of hauntology, a unique kind of musical aesthetic that can powerfully reach into the past and reflect it back at us with genuine sincerity and authenticity, stained and sullied (as it must be) by the gulf that separates then from now, and by our increasingly tenuous grasp on increasingly distant things. But what Matthews gives us in No Man’s Land is little more than a contrived collection of pastiche confectionary, coloured so as to appear moderately grim and stone-faced. Read more

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Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Il rozzo martello; Georges Aperghis – Champ-Contrechamp (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – Angel Fighter (UK Première)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee was devoted to new music, featuring no less a line-up than the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta, both conducted by David Atherton.

The concert opened with Peter Maxwell DaviesIl rozzo martello, a sombre and rather austere choral work that comes across as older than its mere 14 years would suggest. Unlike so many composers of contemporary choral music, Max is happily unequivocal in his mode of expression, but this also makes the piece a bit of a tough listen, so it benefits from repeated listenings, which ‘soften’ the ostensibly hard edges. It proves, at times, to be captivating; the opening, where overlapping plainsong-esque lines sustain their final note, gradually building a rich chord, is a rather magical way to start the piece, and it ends no less impressively, in a deliciously soft morass of lower voices. It’s often the male voices who have the most striking material, including a dense homophonic episode around halfway through, and some unexpected loud whispers towards the end. A difficult piece, no doubt, but given half a chance, an increasingly rewarding one. Read more

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Proms 2011: Thomas Larcher – Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra (World Première)

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Last Thursday’s Prom was an all Austrian affair, opening with the world première of Thomas Larcher‘s Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra; Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley were the soloists, pitted against the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov.

Beforehand, one wondered if it might prove to be the most tantalising new work heard this year; alongside the twin soloists, Larcher has included a peculiar concertino quartet comprising accordion, electric zither, percussion and prepared piano (played by Larcher himself). Within minutes, though, it became abundantly clear that we were in very similar territory to that explored by Pascal Dusapin in his String Quartet/Concerto ‘Hinterland’/’Hapax’ three weeks ago. Throughout the first movement, Larcher, too, is hyperactive almost to the point of absurdity, but certainly well beyond the point of irritation. His material feels like the result of a large-scale collage, one put together from microscopic, barely-similar fragments. There are, admittedly, notions of unity in the movement—an occasional returring motif, and an oscillating chord progression redolent of film music—but they can do little to prevent the music from coming across as skittish and schizophrenic. Read more

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Proms 2011: Jonny Greenwood/Robert Ziegler – Norwegian Wood – Suite & Purcell; Joby Talbot – Chacony in G minor (World Premières)

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The most recent premières at this year’s Proms have been a pair of arrangements, the first, a suite formed by Robert Ziegler from Jonny Greenwood‘s score to the film Norwegian Wood, the second, a new rendition of Henry Purcell‘s Chacony in G minor, by Joby Talbot.

Greenwood’s music was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra (with which he is Composer in Association), at last Friday’s Prom dedicated to film music. The augeries were ambivalent; hitherto in this concert, despite apparent energy in spades, the orchestra had proved itself lacklustre and even scrappy under Keith Lockhart’s direction. A notable casualty was John Williams’ Star Wars music, the opening of which was a mistimed disgrace, while the rest became a bombastic showy affair far, far away from the raw power of the original. On the other hand, the quieter music seemed to suit everyone much better, which boded well for Greenwood’s restrained, even reticent soundtrack. It’s not accurate to describe this Suite as an ‘arrangement’; Robert Ziegler, the original conductor of Greenwood’s score (and also for his music for the film There Will Be Blood), has simply extracted three movements to form this Suite: ‘もう少し自分のこと、きちんとしたいの’ (‘I want to get a little better’), ‘草原、風、雑木林’ (The Meadow, the Wind, the Trees’) and ‘直子が死んだ’ (‘Naoko Died’). Ziegler’s own contribution seems to be limited to a small extension of the opening material in the first movement; beyond that, any additional tweaks are too subtle to be noticeable. Read more

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Proms 2011: Simon Holt – Centauromachy

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Simon Holt has been featured at the Proms on numerous occasions over the years, and yesterday his music returned to the Albert Hall with the orchestral work Centauromachy. It was given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with whom Holt is Composer in Association; they were conducted by François-Xavier Roth, who also oversaw the première of the piece in November last year. The work features a pair of soloists, of distinct but not dissimilar timbres: clarinet in A and flugelhorn, played by Robert Plane and Philippe Schartz respectively.

Holt has structured the work in five movements, the shortest of which comes first, featuring the soloists alone. Titled ‘Two natures’, it serves to compare and contrast the clarinet and flugelhorn, which at first take it in turns to attempt to catch each other, scurrying around, imitating, their phrases ending together on a unison note. It’s not until the third and final phrase that they move beyond a relatively narrow pitch space, moving swiftly to occupy distinct registral areas, the clarinet initially high above the flugelhorn, then leaping below it. Following a final chirrup, the second movement, ‘Chiron’s dream’ introduces the orchestra, rapidly materialising like a grand, cinematic fade-in. When the soloists restart their activity, it’s with forceful gestures, but they quickly yield to lines that continue to cling together. A trumpet strikes up a rapport with the flugel, while the strings seek to try something out in their uppermost register, delineated by glockenspiel strikes. Everything coalesces onto a lower note, from which the soloists again recommence strongly but immediately become soft; as earlier, though, Holt keeps the material restless, suggesting a dream that’s not entirely comfortable. Read more

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Proms 2011: Robin Holloway – Fifth Concerto for Orchestra (World Première)

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After a few days’ break, new music returned to the Proms this evening with the world première of Robin Holloway‘s Fifth Concerto for Orchestra, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles. His previous quartet of orchestral concerti have been diverse, making it difficult to predict with any certainty what Holloway would do on this occasion. The beginnings of an answer come quickly; Holloway has jettisoned all conceits of programme music—indeed, he goes to great pains in his accompanying note to emphasise how ‘abstract’ it is. But this is undermined to an extent by the lengthy quasi-synæsthetic description Holloway offers instead, suggesting the five movements explore a variety of colours and hues, which may be abstract in one sense, but in another is arguably no less demonstrative in the way it describes to the listener what the music is ‘about’. This is not a complaint, though, and the prospect of exploring colour in sound – such a richly-mined concept in the 20th century – is an intriguing one, particularly in the hands of Holloway, who always takes such a filigree approach to orchestration (heard so captivatingly in his re-working of Schumann performed at last year’s Proms, the song cycle RELIQUARY). Read more

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Proms 2011: Marc-André Dalbavie & Elliott Carter – Flute Concertos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening’s Prom concert brought not one but two flute concertos, performed by Swiss virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, again under Thierry Fischer’s direction. The two pieces are nearly five and three years old respectively, the first from Marc-André Dalbavie, who turned 50 earlier this year, the second (heard here in its UK première) from Elliott Carter, who will be a staggering 103 years old in December. Despite first appearances, there are commonalities between the two works. Both eschew the contemporary practice of opting for descriptive names; the bald title Flute Concerto has connotations of its own, of course, but nonetheless suggests that deeply programmatic content is not the order of the day. To that end, both also place greatest importance on the surface of the music, inviting the listener first and foremost to place their focus on its undulations. But there the similarities end. Read more

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Proms 2011: Pascal Dusapin – String Quartet No. 6, ‘Hinterland’ (‘Hapax’ for string quartet and orchestra) (UK Première)

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Turning one’s attention to the second work of Pascal Dusapin‘s to be featured at this year’s Proms, superficial similarities to the last première, Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas, immediately present themselves. This, too, is a piece for string quartet (Dusapin’s String Quartet No. 6), although extensively augmented and amplified by the presence of a small orchestra (on this occasion, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, directed by Thierry Fischer). Dusapin’s work also bears two titles, the first of which, Hinterland, suggests a similar kind of remote landscape to that explored in Beamish’s piece. The second title, in Dusapin’s trademark pithy fashion, is the single Greek word Hapax, a word perhaps better known in English through the linguistic term hapax legomenon, referring to the rare phenomenon of a word or construction that appears just once in a particular language. Dusapin rather indifferently claims to have used the word ‘Hapax’ simply because “It is […] highly unlikely that I will ever write another quartet with orchestra”, but one can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that. Due to the nature of hapax legomena, they are notoriously difficult to make sense of, and as Dusapin’s work progresses, it’s a parallel that seems increasingly apt. Read more

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Proms 2011: Sally Beamish – Reed Stanzas (String Quartet No. 3) (World Première)

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The first chamber music première at this year’s Proms took place yesterday afternoon, at the Cadogan Hall. Sally Beamish‘s new work for the Elias Quartet bears two conjoined titles, reflecting different aspects of the work: Reed Stanzas throws together modern notions of marshland and poetry, while String Quartet No. 3 reminds us the work is part of an ongoing series of works that in turn aspire to be part of a much older compositional lineage. Beamish has lived in Scotland for over 20 years now, and it’s to one the country’s indigenous musical traditions that she turns first, utilising second violinist Donald Grant’s dual talent as a Scottish fiddle player. Scotland also plays a part in the compositional tone of the piece; Beamish wrote the work on the Outer Hebridean island of Harris (a place i know well from my own times in Scotland), a landscape with outlandish contrasts of terrain, featuring Mediterranean-like beaches, angular grey mountain country, and vast tracts of rather desolate scrubland. It’s the latter that Beamish has uppermost in mind, alongside an equivalent landscape of East Anglia, the “Reed” in the title alluding to the region’s wonderful areas of marsh- and fenland; together, they evoke for Beamish a “vastness” and “loneliness” that is omnipresent in the piece. Read more

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Proms 2011: Pascal Dusapin – Morning in Long Island (UK Première)

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The music of Pascal Dusapin is being featured twice at this year’s Proms. The first piece, Morning in Long Island, was given its UK première yesterday evening, by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, directed by Myung-Whun Chung. It’s not exactly the kind of appellation one would immediately associate with Dusapin, who usually prefers to title his works with succinct, single words. His allusive title refers to a morning, over 20 years ago, when Dusapin found himself on a beach, and was captivated by the movement of nature around him (not a million miles away from the moment of inspiration that led to James Dillon’s Zone (… de azul)). Morning in Long Island is structured in three movements, which continue without a break, and together with the large orchestra Dusapin has included an additional brass trio of horn, trumpet and trombone. Read more

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Proms 2011: Havergal Brian – Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’

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Rarely have i felt the need to prepare so thoroughly before a concert as i did prior to yesterday evening’s Prom performance of Havergal Brian‘s Symphony No. 1 ‘Gothic’. Books were re-read, CDs were re-listened to, and i even re-visited the writings of John Ruskin, who wrote with such authority about the nature of Gothic. The enterprise felt similar to the preparations for a lengthy trek over difficult and taxing terrain, but such is the nature of the musical landscape of Brian’s symphony. At the outset, i suppose, one must tackle the elephant in the room. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the kind; for weeks on end, one commentator after another has been getting in an excited lather at the size of the Gothic Symphony. “Gosh, it needs over 1,000 players” they coo; “Wow, it’s the longest symphony ever written”, they gush, as though mere scale was somehow a laudable trait or even an end in itself. Brian’s not alone in suffering from such witless gigantophilia; Sorabji, too, is seemingly forever spoken of in terms of the size of his output. Even Tom Service, the BBC’s boy scout-in-residence, could hardly remain still in his seat at yesterday’s performance, positively whooping with delight at the sheer colossality of it all. Some deep breaths and chill pills are clearly called for. Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Bingham – The Everlasting Crown (World Première)

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Given that so few composers seem to show any real interest in the organ these days, the prospect of a new work for the instrument at this year’s Proms—of 35 minutes’ duration, no less—was a mouth-watering one. Splendidly, the honour was given to Judith Bingham, a composer who, compared to some, seems ever to be lauded in somewhat muted tones, yet in my experience, never seems to put a foot wrong in her diverse output. Her oeuvre flits in and out of direct religious statement, but even pieces with a more secular emphasis usually allude to things spiritual. Her new work for organist Stephen Farr, The Everlasting Crown, is just such a piece, exploring the perhaps unlikely subject of precious stones associated with powerful historical figures, stones that, “undecaying, constant – represent aspects of monarchy and power” (from Bingham’s programme note). Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Weir – Stars, Night, Music and Light (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season commenced this evening with the world première of a new work from Judith Weir. Evocatively titled Stars, Night, Music and Light, Weir has drawn on three lines of text from the sixth stanza of George Herbert‘s poem ‘Man’, a poem that echoes the sentiments of Psalm 8, celebrating humankind as the apogee and centrepiece of God’s creation. Herbert’s lines are wonderfully deep, even a touch abstruse at times, but Weir’s sliver of text is beautifully simple, as is the music she’s composed for the occasion. Read more

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Proms 2010: Jonathan Dove – A Song of Joys (World Première)

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i think Tom Service put it best, a few years ago, when he described the Last Night of the Proms as a “calcified cadaver”. It is, there’s no question: beneath the merriment and the klaxons lies an occasion that died many, many years ago; it’s a concert in aspic, filled with a misfitted agglomeration of works that culminate in a trio of singalongs which have at least made the transition from jingoistic anthems to party favourites. It’s almost as bad as Choral Evensong, for goodness’ sake. Anyway, turning away from such blatant party poopery for a moment, it does at least promise something new each year, and last night the opportunity fell to housewives’ favourite, Jonathan Dove, whose A Song of Joys was given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlávek, starting the concert.

Dove has turned to that most ambitious of poets Walt Whitman for his text, lines from the poem whose title Dove has borrowed for his own. And it’s a big text; the scope of Whitman’s vision is akin to that of Psalm 8, conjuring a vista of creation from the vantage point of song. Such epic scope as this makes it all the more disappointing that Dove’s response to the text is so simple and unimaginative. Dove probably wasn’t allowed longer than his 5-minute duration, but did he really have to move through the text in such a perfunctory way? One phrase dutifully follows another, never really bringing alive the words or tapping into their vision, still less presenting one of Dove’s own. It’s all terribly functional: loud and light, with lots of big tunes—but not a hint of the genuine, deep excitement from which Whitman’s words no doubt sprang. In fact, the choral evensong analogy remains apt; what Dove has composed is a secular but unavoidably John Rutter-esque anthem that would sit perfectly comfortably within an edition of Songs of Praise. So, was it suitable to start the Last Night of the Proms? with Tom Service’s description of the occasion foremost in mind: yes, absolutely. Read more

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Proms 2010: Robin Holloway – RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (World Première)

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Prize for the longest title bestowed on a piece in this year’s Proms must surely go to Robin Holloway‘s RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’, given its world première two days ago. Holloway has taken Schumann’s last five songs—deemed, it seems, by scholars to be of relatively poor quality—and both orchestrated them as well as providing them with a larger context, a framework within which they sit; Holloway describes how “[the] work as an entity … contains the five original songs as within a mediaeval reliquary, surrounding the precious remains within a suitable setting, tactful and unobtrusive for the most part…” (from the programme note).

To that end, Holloway has put himself in Schumann’s compositional shoes, to the extent that the opening Prologue works so convincingly as a preliminary to the first song, that i didn’t even notice it at an initial listening. This stylistic reserve continues throughout the song (“Abschied von Frankreich”); while the orchestration does sound, at moments, a touch richer than Schumann might have written, the language is faithful, with little to suggest a much later hand has been involved. Until, that is, the very end of the song, when a muted call from the horns causes the style to shift, allowing in some poignant dissonances, all the more cutting in this context. It leads pretty much seamlessly into the second song (“Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes”), in which Holloway’s voice is much more demonstrable—right from the start, in fact: the opening celesta motif almost made me gasp at its stylistic difference. But one gets the impression, quickly, that this song was most in need of assistance; Schumann’s treatment of the text (a prayer for her new-born son’s safety) is somewhat perfunctory and fragmented. While this isn’t helped by Holloway’s interpolation of a number of silences, it is significantly enriched with what he calls a ‘halo’, provided by celesta and strings, continuing throughout; it sits surprisingly comfortably above the song, giving it a delicate, even transcendent dimension. Read more

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Proms 2010: Tansy Davies – Wild Card (World Première)

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The prepenultimate première at this year’s Proms was one i’ve been very much looking forward to: Tansy DaviesWild Card, receiving its first performance this evening. i’m fortunate to have had a number of lengthy conversations with Tansy in the last year or so, and her compositional mind is an attractive combination of frivolous spontaneity and thoughtful deliberation. This engaging dichotomy is also brought to bear in her new work; indeed, as she says beforehand, speaking of the tarot cards that inspired it, “they’re all about systems and games, patterns…”.

It opens with the Devil card, the bass clarinet luxuriating in a kind of rude profundity. Melodies quickly develop, doubled on multiple woodwinds (strings form a backdrop), calling and swooping above the rhythmic patterns laid down by the percussion (the High Priestess and the Magician, perhaps). Texture is apparently just as important as tunes, though, and as the melodies subside, harp and piano introduce a series of rough, blurting gestures, the percussion tickling from behind. The two are then brought together; over an insistent bongo, the woodwinds bleat a fragmented tune, swiftly restoring the melodic ideas from earlier. In just a few minutes, Davies has made it clear hers is going to be a diverse piece, chopping and changing with serious alacrity. But likewise, what also becomes clear is that the programme note—in which she carefully describes her musical interpretation of each of the 22 tarot cards—could be a tad dangerous, potentially lulling the ear into perceiving Wild Card as a purely episodic piece—a kind of test where one listens out for and mentally ticks off each card as it appears. But Wild Card is more—well—wild than that; Davies has constructed a far more complex work than first impressions suggest, the ideas relating to individual cards by no means confined to neat, tidy episodes but recurring, quixotically, when it seems appropriate (or even inappropriate). Read more

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Proms 2010: James MacMillan – The Sacrifice – Three Interludes (London Première)

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The Proms is now well into its final straight, and the week began with the London première of James MacMillan‘s The Sacrifice – Three Interludes. As the title suggests, MacMillan has extracted the music from his 2007 opera, The Sacrifice.

First of the three is “The Parting”, which opens, disarmingly, like a John Williams-esque bit of film music, continuing in this vein for several minutes. Eventually it coalesces into something deeper; a curious music, driven by the strings, taking some strange harmonic twists (akin to one of Shostakovich’s slow movements), before being abruptly snatched by the brass and percussion. This throws a bit of light and air into the mix, and leads to some brief excitement in the woodwinds, though not for long, finally descending back to the mood from which it sprang. The interlude concludes with the greyest of passages (now Wagner springs to mind), muted, melancholic, ashen.

A “Passacaglia” follows, and if the opening moments suggest Britten or Lutosławski, such notions are quickly dispelled by the boistrous melody that chirps up, setting the tone for where things are going. The music originally accompanied the scene of a marriage feast, and there’s a fair amount of merriment in MacMillan’s material, although equally, the ominous presence of the ground bass, coupled with the nasal quality of much of the music, makes for an ambivalent mood (MacMillan’s programme note bluntly states, “It will end in violence”). Read more

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Proms 2010: Weir, Musgrave, Northcott, Ferneyhough, Taverner, Harvey and Jackson

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The final Proms Saturday Matinee, two days ago, featured the BBC Singers, exploring a variety of contemporary works inspired by early music. The singers were joined for the occasion by the Arditti Quartet and members of Endymion, with David Hill presiding.

The concert opened with Judith Weir‘s millennial composition All the Ends of the Earth. Weir’s innate sensitivity in writing for voices is superbly demonstrated here, the sopranos exploring increasingly complex melismas; they’re answered at intervals by the lower voices, who are backed up by soft harp and percussion. The melodic lines soon become concentric, fast and slow simultaneously, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Weir’s inspiration for the piece, Perotin. The lower voices’ contributions become more and more static, less and less frequent, as the piece progresses; greatest emphasis is given to the often stratospheric sopranos, whose repeated Alleluia refrain carries real weight, despite the altitude. Towards the conclusion, both the lower voices and the instruments get more caught up in the celebration, the choir ultimately uniting at the very end. Read more

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