Festivals

Proms 2016: Jörg Widmann – Armonica; Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer (UK Premières)

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The latest pair of premières at the Proms have shared a leaning towards, not abstraction exactly, but a kind of elusive vagueness that seeks more to hint and evoke rather than aiming at direct statement. Both, however, got there via quite specific starting points. Dutch composer Reinbert de Leeuw turned to Hölderlin for both the title and the environment of his new large-scale orchestral work Der nächtliche Wanderer. At nearly 50 minutes’ duration, it’s one of the longest contemporary works to be featured at the Proms in a while, although the extent to which de Leeuw justified this duration is debatable. Its primary objective is to create an immersive nocturnal soundscape, theatrical and even rather frightening. To this end, the work’s opening gambit is very effective, featuring the recorded sounds of a distant barking dog segueing into a lengthy prelude where low tam-tams and bells form the backdrop to a small repeating motif from a lone viola, answered by rising/falling phrases from divided strings. Read more

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HCMF 2016: looking forward some more

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Further information has been made available today about this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, following the announcement in May that Georg Friedrich Haas will be the featured Composer in Residence. Predictably, there’s a great deal to get excited about. The music of Harry Partch will be making an appearance courtesy of Ensemble Musikfabrik, who’ve done so much to promote Partch over the last few years, reconstructing his vast array of weird and wonderful microtonal instruments (their rendition of his And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma at Bristol New Music 2014 was a dazzling testament both to the ensemble’s meticulous care/preparation as well as to Partch’s discombobulating approach to—well, pretty much everything). To expand upon this, the ensemble has commissioned composers to write for these instruments, and will be premièring several of them at this year’s festival, including an hour long work by Claudia Molitor titled Walking with Partch.

Swiss composer Alfred Zimmerlin will be bringing his Stone Orchestra to Huddersfield, and the festival’s fondness for improvisation will this year be entertained by Peter Brötzmann and Gareth Davis, the latter appearing once again in conjunction with the music of American composer/guitarist Elliott Sharp (of whose solo contrabass clarinet piece Silva Silvarum Davis gave a wonderful first performance a couple of years ago). Having brought the festival to an end in recent years, the Arditti Quartet will this time be getting it up and running with an opening night concert alongside contemporary music’s most radical nightingale, Jennifer Walshe, giving the UK première of Walshe’s Everything is Important (which, coincidentally, received its world première in Darmstadt just last night). The Ardittis will also be joining with Klangforum Wien in a concert presenting two major works by Haas, The Hyena and his brand spanking new String Quartet No. 10. The Diotima Quartet will also be appearing, performing new works by Enno Poppe and Sam Hayden, and HCMF regular Richard Uttley is back with music by Haas, Eric Wubbels and Olga Neuwirth, as well as—best of all—a new piece for Fender Rhodes piano by Michael Cutting, whose This Is Not A Faux Wood Keyboard remains a particularly memorable highlight from last year.

Throw in new and recent works from the likes of Rebecca Saunders, Liza Lim, Eva Reiter, George Lewis and John Zorn and HCMF 2016 is already shaping up to be a typically kaleidoscopic and challenging festival. It runs from Friday 18 to Sunday 27 November; full details and tickets are available from the festival website.

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Proms 2016: Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie (Symphony No. 3) (UK Première)

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Hot on the heels of one new violin concerto at the Proms, here comes another, this time courtesy of Russian-born, US-based composer Lera Auerbach. But no ordinary concerto, as it’s also subtitled a ‘symphony’, her third, and the involvement of a mixed chorus lends it the quality of both a cantata and a song cycle. Auerbach’s great compatriot Alfred Schnittke also used to mix up idioms in just this way, and aspirations towards his sort of wry take on things (though definitely not his soundworld; more about that in a moment) can be felt in the core of the piece, which goes by the grand title of The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie. The titular minstrel is a role taken on by the solo violin, acting as a peripatetic storyteller, given a literal voice by the chorus. The work’s eight songs are also written by Auerbach, closely modelled on familiar tropes of nonsense rhyme calling to mind Edward Lear, Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll and even Dr. Seuss.

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Proms 2016: Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before. Read more

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Proms 2016: Anthony Payne – Of Land, Sea and Sky (World Première)

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There were paradoxes at play throughout Anthony Payne‘s new work for choir and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky, given its première at last night’s Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis. Well, paradoxes is one word for them: inconsistencies and/or anachronisms would be another equally accurate way of putting it. First is the matter of old and new. Aesthetically speaking, Payne’s musical language emanates from the 20th century, a mash-up of idiomatic traits from the likes of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Walton and, occasionally, Britten, all of whom made their presence felt in this piece. Read more

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Proms 2016: Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes (World Première)

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Last week, i finally got round to watching a concert i’d recorded last year celebrating the music of film composer John Williams, featuring highlights from throughout his long career. For better or worse, i couldn’t help recalling that concert again and again during last night’s world première at the Proms of Magnus Lindberg‘s Two Episodes, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In some respects, this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Always a demonstrably accessible composer, Lindberg’s work in the last few years has reached more and more into the kind of musical language associated with movie soundtracks (a quality i’ve pointed out with regard to both Al largo and Era). What was surprising, though, was that the piece was entirely conceived to serve as an homage to the work following it in the programme, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Lindberg has apparently undertaken no small amount of analysis of Beethoven’s score, and sought to tap into it in various ways. He describes the first of his ‘episodes’ as “linked to the massive impact of the first movement [of the Beethoven] with its immense tutti writing” whereas the second “is closer to the beauty of the slow movement and acts as a bridge towards the open fifth A and E and its D minor destination”. He goes on to point out that the work doesn’t directly quote Beethoven (sighs of relief all round) but instead embeds “a number of Beethovenian allusions, so there are clear aural links, and the orchestration matches the symphony, so it will have a period colour without harp, piano and exotic percussion that feature in many of my works”. Read more

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Proms 2016: Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 3 ‘Jesus Messiah, save us!’

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Just when you’ve concluded the Proms are little more than schmoozing, emollience, accessibility and tradition, along comes Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Galina Ustvolskaya‘s Symphony No. 3. Regarded superficially—and, tragically, this is the way the majority of commentators regard her work—Ustvolskaya’s music is the antithesis of comfort. She eschews most of the conventions of western art music, typically bringing together unusual groupings of instruments (often timbrally and registrally incongruous) which articulate themselves from within the strictures of an utmost rigid rhythmic grid. Again regarded superficially, she is the ostensible apogee of the cool, aloof, unemotional, detached composer. Which leaves the question of why four of her five symphonies, as well as the three ‘Compositions’ (together covering a period from 1970 to 1990, the last 20 years of her composing life), should be subtitled with overt religious quotations, extended to recited texts in the symphonies. Is it irony? mischief? sacrilege?

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: A New Jerusalem

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Wednesday evening in Tewkesbury Abbey, in the company of Ex Cathedra conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, was an encounter with a particular kind of British ubiquity. The music of Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Judith Weir and James MacMillan were brought together in an evening focusing on “A New Jerusalem”, four composers whose work, in the church and concert hall respectively, has become (for good or ill) highly pervasive. In the case of Parry and Howells, hearing them beyond the context of liturgical function revealed above all how much their approach to choral writing persists both in the legacy of 20th century church music and beyond as well as the ongoing choral evensong tradition, which for many years has sounded less like a modern expression of faith than a nostalgic clinging to values (both musical and theological) held by an ever-decreasing minority. Hearing them side by side made for an illuminating comparison. What Elgar was to the orchestra, Parry was to the choir, his music never solely about the text or topic at hand but with omnipresent obeisance to a sense of grandiose occasion looming over everything. (Put another way, what Elgar was to pomp, Parry was to circumstance.) Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: Moments of Weightlessness, Music for Piano and Film

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Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: 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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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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Proms 2016: looking forward (but not much)

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i’ve recently returned from a trip to Tallinn to experience some of the annual Estonian Music Days (my reviews can be read over on Bachtrack). In a bit of spare time one afternoon, i finally got around to examining the forthcoming Proms season, and i don’t think it’s entirely due to the fact i was in the midst of a genuinely bold, experimental festival that, from the perspective of new music, Proms 2016 seems so poor bordering on lamentable. In terms of quantity, contemporary music – always a tertiary concern at the Proms after 1) established repertoire and 2) the increasingly desperate need to appear ‘trendy’ – isn’t represented too badly, with 52 works scattered throughout the season (only six of which are by women composers), including 13 world and 10 UK premières. But the choices, particularly in the case of the world premières, are appallingly predictable and narrow-minded, and the less said about the decision to perform Steve Reich in Peckham’s Bold Tendencies car park the better, as it may be an all-time low for the Proms, clearly trying to imitate LCMF. It’s hard to believe the decision-makers have a meaningful grip on what’s actually going on in contemporary music; certainly, if this is indicative of David Pickard’s vision for the Proms, that vision is suffering from an extreme case of myopia. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Eastern Waves, Arditti Quartet

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Saturday afternoon at HCMF brought ‘Eastern Waves’, a double-bill of experimental electronics courtesy of Tomek Mirt and Maja S K Ratkje, each re-working compositions from each other’s country. Mirt took Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Solitaire as his basis, creating—via extensive knob-twiddling on a complex vertical stack of devices festooned with patch cables—a gentle, slowly- and freely-moving soundworld, its essentially ambient foundation occasionally placed on a soft beat grid or flecked with blunt metallic shards. While Mirt’s music unfolded as if along a clear, straight line, Maja Ratkje’s interpretation of various recordings by Polish composer Eugeniusz Rudnik—fittingly titled In Dialogue with Eugeniusz Rudnikwas decidedly non-linear. An audible descent took us into a dream-like place where sounds and ideas float, swirl, coalesce, swoop, soar and plummet. Bells, vocal sounds, electronic blurps and a thundersheet were transformed way beyond their origins, often coming out of nowhere yet instantly making perfect sense as they were woven in and around Rudnik’s materials. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Ensemble Grizzana, Philip Thomas

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Two concerts yesterday, on what had punningly come to be known as “Frey-day”, afforded the opportunity to spend considerably more time with the music of Jürg Frey. i’ve been wrangling with how the word ‘ascetic’ sits with respect to Frey’s music. It’s not, i believe, music wearing a hairshirt, but the more i’ve heard of it this week, the more i’ve felt as though i am—which in turn has to make one question seriously what is happening and to what end. This feeling was particularly acute at the midday concert of four of Frey’s compositions, given by Ensemble Grizzana—a new group comprising soloists Mira Benjamin, Richard Craig, Emma Richards, Philip Thomas and Anton Lukoszevieze along with Frey himself. Returning to my String Quartet No. 2 trekking metaphor—forever progressing at a consistent, unstoppable speed—their performance of Fragile Balance resembled a group of walkers taking it in turns to suggest where their communal next step should be taken, followed by everybody taking it. And so on. Guided by a score consisting of “lists of single sounds and little motifs”, aurally this was not a work where a sense of journey was important—after all, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this particular journey would likely take a thousand years—but rather the act of travelling. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Erik Drescher, Jonty Harrison, Biliana Voutchkova

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In a refreshing break from the large number of groups and ensembles that have dominated HCMF so far, yesterday was given over to three individuals. The first was Berlin-based flautist Erik Drescher, in a recital of works, all receiving their UK premières, specifically composed for the glissando flute (fitted with a variable-length headjoint). It’s an alteration that immediately suggests obvious glissando possibilities, which formed the entire content of Alvin Lucier‘s Double Himalaya. Lucier provides a slowly undulating contour which the flautist plays against a recording of the same thing made previously, resulting in endless tiny clashes and beats. It didn’t take long for the effect to exhaust its interest; three or four minutes of this would have been okay, but 12 was just self-indulgent. Its one saving grace was the clarity of its motives; the same couldn’t be said for Michael Maierhof‘s splitting 51, which involved placing the headjoint such that it is both amplified and resonated/coloured by a plastic cup. What resulted was simply shapeless and arbitrary, uninteresting sounds emanating from a gimmicky environment. Il pomeriggio di un allarme al parcheggio by Salvatore Sciarrino was a risky endeavour, as though it had been created from different colours of smoke, which were then placed within a snowglobe and shaken vigorously. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Konus Quartett, Daniel Buess & Aleksander Gabryś, Ensemble CEPROMUSIC, Jakob Ullmann

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A feature of many of this year’s HCMF concerts has been a blurring of the distinction between pitch and noise, but the midday recital given by Swiss saxophone group Konus Quartett tilted the focus firmly back on pitch. Both works, Jürg Frey‘s Mémoire, horizon and Chiyoko SzlavnicsDuring a Lifetime (each being heard in the UK for the first time) sought to examine pitch as a constant, prevalent thing in its own right as well as an element with wider harmonic implications. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Shorts

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Being a Cotswolds lad, born and raised, i’d have to liken HCMF’s ‘Shorts’ day of free miniature concerts yesterday to a long walk over the hills, with spectacular vistas yet passing through numerous fields randomly distributed with large cowpats. In each field, you pick a direction and stick to it, with obvious consequences. In short, we all ended the day a little muckier than we’d started. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Quatuor Bozzini, Ensemble Phoenix Basel

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Today’s afternoon concerts occupied opposite ends of a number of musical continua, the most obvious being dynamic. At the quiet end, in St Paul’s Hall, were the Bozzini Quartet with music by HCMF resident composer Jürg Frey; at the loud end, fighting the prevailing chill in Bates Mill Blending Shed, were Ensemble Phoenix Basel performing works by Robert Piotrowicz and Alex Buess. Let’s start with the loud.

It was very strange. Buess and Piotrowicz were represented by two works each, and with both composers it was if they destroyed their reputation with the first piece, only to re-establish it again with the second. In the case of Alex Buess‘ 2003 work KHAT, for bass flute and percussion with live electronics, it was a messy, unkempt affair, the pair of performers seemingly occupied with completely different compositions simultaneously, while with the electronics, one can only hope (but at the same time wonder why) the intention was to sound clunky and awkward; as it was, it sounded like someone arbitrarily testing a load of presets. In all these respects it was immensely dull, but once you factored in the very high volume levels (causing numerous people to move further to the back), it became a major irritation. But then came VORTEX_V1.01, composed in 2009 for bass flute, piano, percussion and electronics, a work that was extremely tautly-managed to exhilarating effect. Almost all of the sounds in the piece are either entirely pitchless or sufficiently modulated by different articulations that their pitch content becomes obscured, meaning that in essence Buess is playing with noise-based materials. These are arranged, in highly dramatic fashion, into tight formulations of imitation, complement, riposte, antagonism and the like, both between the players on stage and between them all and the live electronic elements. Clarity emerges gradually from a more amorphous genesis, but structurally VORTEX_V1.01 ultimately proves itself to be very strong, loud and overpowering (never excessively, but still practically abrading the audience from all sides) with some genuinely dazzling climaxes, concluding in a wonderful stop-start finale, blasts of sound alternating with softer detailing. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Richard Uttley, United Instruments of Lucilin

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It’s perhaps a little early, following just two concerts yesterday evening, to start describing the characteristics that typify this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. But based on these, and considering the featured composer is Jürg Frey, it would seem that ‘delicacy’ is going to be one of this year’s prevailing themes. In saying it dominated the piano recital given by local hero Richard Uttley, that’s as true of the performer as it was of the music being performed. i wouldn’t use this term of many pianists but, both from a purely aural perspective as well as watching him perform, Uttley comes across like a ballet dancer. His movements are graceful, lyrical, acrobatic; keys are sprung from, landed upon, tickled, urged, encouraged, coaxed—but rarely, it seems to me, merely struck.
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HCMF 2014 revisited: Hèctor Parra – L’absència (UK Première)

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HCMF’s 2013 Spanish composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra was represented at last year’s festival in an orchestral work, L’absència, receiving its first UK performance. At only 7½ minutes long, and eschewing heavy brass, it’s tempting to describe L’absència as small-scale, yet it’s a piece that sounds convincingly bigger than it really is. That’s just one of many ambiguities and paradoxes fundamental to the work’s character, consistently flirting and teasing in such a way as to render moot most definitive statements one might make about it.

It is, in a nutshell, hard to pin down. Initially—unsurprising considering its modest duration—Parra seems to get cracking with his material briskly, a gruff beginning suddenly hinting at a lyrical underbelly, instead becoming tense before a cluster of heavy swells erupt practically from nowhere. All in under 90 seconds. If anything, though, this complex opening actually indicates the fundamentally deceptive nature of L’absència, which for the most part makes its case slowly, despite appearances. Read more

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