Festivals

Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Ēriks Ešenvalds

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This evening’s Prom, titled ‘War and Peace’ and featuring the BBC Proms Youth Choir and the World Orchestra for Peace, gets underway with the world première of a new work called Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. In preparation for that, here are his answers to my pre-première questions, along with the programme note for his piece. Many thanks to Ēriks for his responses. Read more

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Proms 2018: Caroline Shaw – Second Essay: Echo; Third Essay: Ruby (World Premières)

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What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Whether or not you agree with these words – penned by the sombre but often startlingly wise author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes – it’s impossible not to consider them when listening to the most recent pair of world premières at the 2018 Proms, written by US composer Caroline Shaw. Her music was new to me, and as a warm up for her two new ‘Essays’, i spent some time with her First Essay: Nimrod, composed a few years ago. In hindsight, it’s by far the best of the three, exhibiting a similar kind of playfulness to that of early Tippett, at all times taking its rhythmic and harmonic ideas from existing tropes and models but which, with the exception of a dull passage in the middle, generally avoids sounding too conventional in the way they’re used. The same can’t be said for Second Essay: Echo and Third Essay: Ruby, which received their first performances at Cadogan Hall on Monday by the Calidore String Quartet. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ben Foster – Young Musician Theme & Variations; David Bruce – Sidechaining; Iain Farrington – Gershwinicity (World Premières)

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Party time!

The Proms needs precisely no encouragement whatsoever to turn a concert into a party, and on Sunday evening, a mere two days after the opening night knees-up, came another boisterous shindig, celebrating 40 years of the Young Musician competition. Given by the BBC’s resident light music aficionados, the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, they were joined for the occasion by a host of past competition winners and finalists. Appropriately enough, the music on offer was to a large extent the equivalent of party food, though thankfully – perhaps a self-conscious nod to Britain’s ongoing obsession with tackling obesity – most of it was savoury rather than sweet. Read more

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Proms 2018: Anna Meredith – Five Telegrams (World Première)

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This year’s Proms season kicked off on Friday evening with a concert featuring a major new work from Anna Meredith. Titled Five Telegrams, it’s a work that continues a thread that’s been running through mainstream British culture for the last few years, commemorating the events of the First World War. As the title implies, the piece takes its inspiration from telegrams sent back and forth during the conflict, its five movements focusing on different types and contexts for these telegrams, also featuring specific instrumental groups: newspaper spin (10 trombones), field service postcards (choir), redacted information (four euphoniums), codes (6 trumpets and percussion) and the armistice (tutti).

A recurring question i found myself considering during the piece was the extent to which this layer of extra-musical inspiration had an unambiguous bearing on the music. Underlying conceits and metaphors will always manifest themselves in ways that aren’t merely subjective but impossible to rationalise, and in the case of Five Telegrams Meredith’s inspirational starting point made its presence felt to widely differing degrees and depths.

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with David Bruce

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Continuing what i started last year, i’m again expanding my coverage of the works being premièred at this year’s Proms season by putting some pre-première questions to some of the featured composers, so as to provide some background and context for their music. David Bruce‘s new orchestral work Sidechaining receives its world première at this evening’s Prom, so here are his answers to my questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to David for his responses. 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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Proms 2017: the premières – how you voted

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i want to say thank you to all of you who took time to vote in this year’s 5:4 Proms polls. More of you than ever expressed your views about this year’s premières: a total of 1,096 votes were cast, an increase of 17% from last year.

However, the distribution of those votes was highly unbalanced. Obviously, some pieces are going to be more appealing than others, but the extent of the disparity was much greater than in previous years. For example, the works by Tom Coult and Harrison Birtwistle both elicited 100+ votes, while others barely managed twenty. That’s in part due to the difference in time – the poll for each successive première is available for less long than its predecessors, and this is the main reason why i keep the polls open for a fortnight after the Proms have finished – yet this clearly isn’t the whole story. Roderick Williams’ Là ci darem la mano was the third première, well over two months ago, but still only managed 31 votes. Whether that’s to do with the fact that Williams is less well-known/-regarded as a composer, or that it took place in an afternoon chamber concert rather than an evening event, or that the work was vocal and/or in a concert otherwise filled with Monteverdi, who knows? In some other cases the relative lack of votes seemed surprising. Mark-Anthony Turnage usually stirs up a fair amount of interest, yet his large-scale song cycle Hibiki mustered a mere 32 votes. Has his star finally waned? Whatever the reasons, the range of the disparity is considerable and worth noting.

For the last couple of years, the number-crunching formulae i’ve used on the polls data has taken the number of votes into account so as not to skew the results, and this year i’ve also included the work’s duration as a factor: if two pieces are equally liked or disliked, the longer of the pieces will prevail (this is already an important factor in the crunching that goes into producing my end of the year best album lists). And because if a job’s worth doing, etc. etc., i’ve used the actual duration of the piece –  i.e. from the start of the music to the first clap at the end – rather than the advertised duration. Apropos: for the most part the actual and advertised durations were pretty similar – i.e. ± a minute or so – the one exception being Gerald Barry’s Canada, which was a full four minutes fewer than threatened promised. Anyway, that’s enough preambular wafflestats, here are the results of how you all voted. Read more

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Proms 2017: Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce (World Première)

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After eight weeks of (for the most part) serious music-making, the Last Night of the Proms, quite reasonably, is primarily disposed to the aim of letting of steam and just having fun. For the contemporary composer chosen to get the evening going each year, the enormous sense of occasion – even more so than at the first night – must be so impossible to ignore (and why would you?) that one can’t help wondering to what extent they feel their creativity is being given an opportunity to shine or simply go through the expected motions. Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, from the 1995 Proms, remains a benchmark for ruthless originality in this concert, though it’s worth remembering that that particular piece was not a concert-opener, but occupied a prime position later in the concert. How nice it would be if the tradition of commissioning a world première for the last night could return to being a more major work in the concert rather than the amuse-bouche that the Proms seems to believe is sufficient. Perhaps then composers could do their own thing both more expansively and in the way they’d really like, although the experience and aftermath of Panic may well have scared off the Proms organisers for good on that score. (Apropos: i wonder what would shock people today?)

Nonetheless, one or two of the commissions in recent years – i’m thinking particularly of Tom Harrold’s Raze (2016) and Mark Simpson’s Sparks (2012) – have demonstrated the capacity and the courage to try and squeeze some imagination into their tiny sliver of the evening. And the same was true of last night’s curtain-raiser, Flounce, by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Lotta Wennäkoski

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This evening, Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski‘s new work Flounce will literally become the beginning of the end, getting started the Last Night of the Proms. For the final time this year then, here are my pre-première questions, together with Wennäkoski’s answers and her programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Lotta for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Missy Mazzoli – Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (European Première); Catherine Lamb – Prisma Interius V; Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch – The Minutes (World Premières)

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The last three Proms premières, though very different in some respects, shared some important things in common. All of them, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by Missy Mazzoli, Prisma Interius V by Catherine Lamb and The Minutes by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, eschew silence and focus primarily on harmonic movement – or, more specifically, on the (juxta)positioning of pitches to harmonic ends. In tandem with this, they also all broadly adopt an approach that treats the performance space as a vessel into which sound is poured.

For Missy Mazzoli, the space was, literally, space, her music cast “in the shape of a solar system” (her words). The piece began life in 2013, in a version for chamber orchestra that she later expanded to full orchestra, and which was first performed in February last year. Drawing on the double-meaning of ‘sinfonia’, which in Italian used to refer to the hurdy-gurdy, this can be felt in the way pitches are drawn-out and sustained and slide, and in the small ornamental embellishments (ever so slightly redolent of James MacMillan) that are quickly established to be one of the work’s most characteristic musical elements. In its own particular way, the music clearly wants to sing – its melodic urge is paramount – but the way it does this is always in relation to and as a somewhat secondary consideration to its harmonic foundation, which is mobile yet attracted to certain fundamentals, drifting between poles of tonal certitude. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Catherine Lamb

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Concert halls be damned! Tonight the Proms makes another of its peripatetic excursions beyond the confines of the Royal Albert Hall, paying a first visit to The Tanks at Tate Modern. Among the music being performed will be the world première of Prisma Interius V by experimental American composer Catherine Lamb. To get you whetted and prepped, here are her responses to my pre-première questions, along with a programme note for her piece. Many thanks to Catherine for her answers.
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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Missy Mazzoli

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This evening’s Prom concert includes the first European performance of the orchestral version of Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by US composer Missy Mazzoli. For those unfamiliar with her work, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Missy for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers (World Première)

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The latest orchestral work by British composer Hannah Kendall received its first performance a couple of nights ago at a late night Prom given by Chineke! Orchestra, the flagship orchestra of the Chineke! Foundation, established a couple of years ago “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe”. As she described in her answers to my pre-première questions, her new piece The Spark Catchers takes its inspiration and title from a poem by Lemn Sissay. The text pays homage to the London matchgirls who in 1888 went on strike in protest at their long hours, meagre pay and dangerous working conditions, involving serious, potentially fatal, risks to their health. Throughout the poem, Sissay plays on the triple-meaning of the word ‘strike’, alluding to the industrial action as well as the motion that causes matches to ignite (in hindsight, i wonder whether ‘Strike’ would have been an even more suitable title for Kendall’s piece), but most specifically the call that went up in the factory when a loose spark shot out, threatening to set everything ablaze, whereupon one of the women would leap to catch the spark before it could touch anything. Requiring a remarkable combination of reflexes and dexterity, Sissay praises “the magnificent grace / The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air / The precision, perfection and the peace.” Read more

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Proms 2017: Andrea Tarrodi – Liguria (UK Première)

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Last night saw the second UK première by a Swedish composer at this year’s Proms, this time from Andrea Tarrodi. For those unfamiliar with her work, the key part of her responses to my pre-première questions was the reference to her parallel passion for painting, plus the related fact that she continues to “connect music with images and colours”. Though she didn’t use the term, in essence she’s an impressionist, creating musical canvasses that evoke, allude and suggest, according to an underlying semi-programmatic scheme. She’s also something of a minimalist, not simply in obvious cycling rhythms and consonances (which she uses sparingly and loosely), but in a slim-line approach to material, setting up ideas and motifs that are then re-used and re-worked, sometimes at length. That may suggest that melody is of lesser importance to Tarrodi, yet her use of motifs is often such that they are either a nascent form of a melody or capable of being easily expanded into one. Another way of putting it would be to regard her approach to melody as being compact and somewhat implicit. Highlands, her cello concerto written in 2013, is a revealing case in point, in which the soloist engages in some lengthy passages of melody (particularly the lengthy cadenza halfway through) – generally more lyrical than virtuosic – but most often is involved in intricate, complex textures with the rest of the orchestra which highlight a simple recurring motif, characterised by a falling minor third.

Originally written for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (who premièred it in 2012), Tarrodi’s orchestral work Liguria demontrates precisely the same compositional outlook and approach. Named for the Ligurian Sea in the Mediterranean, it depicts Tarrodi’s memories of a time when she visited the area. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Hannah Kendall

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Today’s late-evening Prom given by the Chineke! orchestra opens with a new work by British composer Hannah Kendall, titled The Spark Catchers. In preparation, here are Kendall’s answers to my pre-première questions, together with the work’s programme note. Many thanks to Hannah for her answers. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Andrea Tarrodi

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Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi‘s orchestral piece Liguria, composed in 2012, receives its first UK performance at this evening’s Prom concert. Her music is new to me and, i’m sure, to many others, so her answers to my pre-première questions provide some invaluable background information, along with her programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Andrea for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

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They may start to behave in ways that are challenging and distressing, both for themselves and those around them. For example, they may:

  • become restless or agitated
  • shout out or scream
  • become suspicious of others
  • follow someone around
  • ask the same question repeatedly.

It is important to look at why the person is behaving this way and try to identify which needs are not being met. This will mean trying to see things from their perspective as much as possible. Meeting a person’s needs appropriately can make these behaviours easier to cope with, or prevent them from happening in the first place.

The above words are paraphrased from guidelines on how to respond to someone grappling with the effects of dementia. They’re a useful starting point, i think for considering the output of Gerald Barry, particularly his most recent offering, Canada, premièred at the Proms last Monday. For while Barry himself may not display the signs of this affliction (though, listening to his painfully weird pre-concert interview with Louise Fryer, one wonders), his music most certainly does. It’s perhaps the archetypal ‘Marmite music’: you either think it’s the best thing since – and the perfect accompaniment to – sliced bread, or a ghastly streak of shit-coloured malevolence that you wish with all your being had never come into existence. Read more

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Proms 2017: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove; Daniel Saleeb – Chorale Preludes (World Premières)

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As will have been clear from my 38th mixtape back in April, my love affair with the organ has been a long and significant one. It’s an instrument that often gets overlooked in the world of contemporary music, so a definite plus of this year’s Proms season has been the opportunity to hear three new works for the instrument. They come courtesy of organist William Whitehead, who has been curating the Orgelbüchlein Project, commissioning composers to complete Bach’s Little Organ Book, which was originally planned to span the entire liturgical year, but Bach only finished 46 of the intended 164 chorale preludes. The newest additions to the project are by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove and Daniel Saleeb, and were premièred by Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday. Read more

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