Festivals

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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HCMF 2014 revisited: Jan Erik Mikalsen – Too much of a good thing is wonderful (UK Première)

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One of the strongest impressions that Norwegian composer Jan Erik Mikalsen‘s Too much of a good thing is wonderful made on me last year was grandiosity, emanating from allusions to Liberace, of whom the piece is something of an affectionate (if somewhat wry) homage. Returning to the piece since, that impression has become more nuanced and amorphous, in its own way undergoing precisely the same kind of absorption into the work’s depths as Liberace’s own material does. Mikalsen sets up a mise-en-scène that sounds wholly aquatic, initially positioned at a vantage point, coolly observing surges like small tumbling waves at the shore. The qualities exhibited here, though, persist throughout, a distant kind of hesitance, pitches defracted through a quarter-tonal prism. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Luis Codera Puzo – π

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One of the most unusual concerts at HCMF 2014 was given by Spanish ensemble CrossingLines. When i say ‘unusual’, perhaps i mean ‘impenetrable’; most of the works in the concert, by composers from Spain and Chile, were challenging to the point of wilful oddity. There was, however, one glorious exception: π by CrossingLines artistic director Luis Codera Puzo, a work for trombone, electric guitar, double bass, glockenspiel and electronics. The title is a simple metaphor, Puzo embracing π’s twin nature, being a defined, constant quantity yet irrational and therefore impossible fully to describe. For Puzo, this becomes a sonic duality, “something with a clear and unequivocal presence, which is real and concrete, and at the same time is something which cannot be pinned down, which resists any kind of complete codification”.

This becomes manifested in various ways. It’s perhaps unusual to ascribe dynamics as a primary compositional element, but Puzo has deliberately created the majority of his material such that it sounds achingly fragile, strange little soft sounds that tremulously fit together into a texture that coheres yet which often sounds barely more substantial than a piece of graphene. Read more

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HCMF 2015: looking forward

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It’s November, which of course means that the annual pilgrimage to the UK’s new music mecca is only a few weeks’ away. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has this year opted for a demonstrably reflective tone, building on the remarkable performances of music by, in particular, Jakob Ullmann and Antoine Beuger a couple of years ago, which to my mind at least constituted an interesting departure from HCMF’s more conventional fare. Jakob Ullmann is this year represented by a pair of substantial new works—a half-hour solo double bass piece premièred by Dominic Lash and the 90-minute la segunda canción del ángel desaparecido—and while Beuger is absent, the festival’s composer-in-residence is Jürg Frey, who has long been associated with Beuger’s Wandelweiser Group. Five concerts provide an extensive opportunity to become immersed in Frey’s music, with major explorations being presented by Quatuor Bozzini, Ensemble Grizzana and Philip Thomas. Read more

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Proms 2015: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks for all of your votes on this year’s Proms premières. Having closed the polls yesterday, i’ve crunched the numbers a few different ways and here’s a summary of what you, my esteemed readers, had to say about this year’s offerings.
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Proms 2015: Eleanor Alberga – Arise, Athena! (World Première)

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New music at the Proms, and the season itself, came to an end at yesterday’s Last Night, with the world première of Jamaican-born composer Eleanor Alberga’s brief concert-opener Arise, Athena!. According to the composer, the piece (ahem) arose from a desire to have a female theme, Alberga drawing on the Greek goddess Athena for inspiration, citing her connection (among many others) to “wisdom and the Arts”.
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Proms 2015: B. Tommy Andersson – Pan; Guy Barker – The Lanterne of Light (World Premières)

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Homage, allusion and evocation have all been heavily foregrounded in many of this year’s Proms premières, and the most recent pair are in no way an exception. Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson has turned to the Greek god Pan for inspiration in his eponymous latest work for organ and orchestra (not, according to Andersson, a concerto) while British Jazz musician Guy Barker has turned to an early 15th century tract classifying the seven deadly sins as the basis for his new trumpet concerto The Lanterne of Light. Read more

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Proms 2015: Christian Mason – Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (UK Première)

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One of the smaller Proms premières, Christian Mason‘s Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand was commissioned as a part of this year’s 90th birthday celebrations for Pierre Boulez. Fittingly, its world première was given by Boulez’s very own Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Lucerne Festival; its first UK performance at the Proms, a few days later, was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Thierry Fischer. Mason describes the work as having a twofold connection to Boulez, first in terms of the work’s engagement with twin perspectives, focusing on both intricate detail and broader structural durations (the title derives from this, drawing on the opening line of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand”), as well as the use of crotales, involving all 15 players, a reference to Mason’s recollections of Boulez’s orchestral work Le Visage nuptial.
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Proms 2015: Anders Hillborg – Beast Sampler (UK Première); Raymond Yiu – Symphony; Alissa Firsova – Bergen’s Bonfire (World Premières)

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The latest spate of Proms premières have made for an interesting contrast in terms of abstract versus concrete ideas. At the former end of the continuum—where else would you find him?—was Anders Hillborg and his latest orchestral piece Beast Sampler; at the latter end was Raymond Yiu‘s Symphony, a large-scale work for countertenor and orchestra; somewhere in between was Bergen’s Bonfire, a new symphonic poem from Alissa Firsova. Read more

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Proms 2015: Michael Finnissy – Janne (World Première)

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Three years ago i remarked how the performance of Michael Finnissy‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 was only the composer’s second appearance at the Proms, opining that “one can only hope he will be much better represented in years to come; he is truly one of our best”. It’s therefore wonderful that Finnissy has been commissioned for this year’s Proms season, producing a work that forges a connection of sorts with Sibelius, whose music occupied the rest of the concert. Titled after Sibelius’ affectionate nickname, Janne is somewhat special in Finnissy’s output, as it is only the ninth time that he has written for orchestra, a curious fact in itself for a composer whose worklist currently comprises in excess of 320 pieces. Having hitherto flitted between large and chamber-size orchestras, for Janne Finnissy has utilised the same modest forces used by Sibelius in the brace of symphonies (numbers 3 and 4) performed either side of it.
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Proms 2015: Bertram Wee – Dithyrambs (World Première)

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If there’s one thing that pretty much all of the new works at the Proms tend to suffer a lack of, it’s humility; that’s not to suggest this is down to their respective composers (in most cases), but the act of presenting a première usually finds itself festooned in generous quantities of hype and hullabaloo, which only occasionally turn out to be justified. So Singaporean composer Bertram Wee‘s new work Dithryambs, premièred by Evelyn Glennie last Monday at Cadogan Hall, therefore came as a welcome and very refreshing exception to this razzmatazztic norm. Composed for the relatively unfamiliar aluphone—a clattersome instrument made (as the name implies) from aluminium, resembling B-movie flying saucers, arranged like a set of crotales and sounding like a cross between bells and car hubcaps—Dithyrambs is essentially a study, seeking to tease out and have fun with a variety of facets yet without overstaying its welcome.
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Proms 2015: Jonathan Newman – Blow It Up, Start Again; Eric Whitacre – Deep Field (European Premières)

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Composers say one thing; their music does something else. It’s nice when the two fit together, or at least fall broadly into the same conceptual and/or aesthetic ballpark. But they don’t always. Not by a long chalk.
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Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première); James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

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At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy. Read more

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Proms 2015: Luke Bedford – Instability; Anna Meredith – Smatter Hauler (World Premières)

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Stability, progression, continuity, predictability, coherence: these concepts jostle, intermingle and regularly find themselves redefined in a lot of new music. And in two recent Proms premières, they felt overtly prominent, Luke Bedford‘s Instability and Anna Meredith‘s Smatter Hauler. This prominence was partly deliberate and partly due to the extreme contrasts these pieces exhibited. In the case of Meredith’s piece, given its world première by the Aurora Orchestra (who, it should be pointed out, performed from memory—if only more orchestras would be up for this), the stated aim was associated with musical ideas being ‘stolen’ by different groups of instruments (the title being a reference to Victorian handkerchief thieves, mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes novel). An interesting aim, yet in practice the aural result was a simple gradual yielding between centres of distinct behavioural activity, like slowly shifting one’s gaze from group to group. In more imaginative hands, it might have proved effective; but here, the predictability in the work’s systemic approach combined with materials woefully in want of a cogent, compelling idea, simply led to a dull descent into increasingly blank forms of inarticulate bludgeoning. Rarely has a creative vacuum made so much empty noise. Read more

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Proms 2015: Luca Francesconi – Duende – The Dark Notes (UK Première)

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The concerto form is a popular one for new works at the Proms, and the most recent, Luca Francesconi‘s Duende – The Dark Notes (originally intended for the 2014 Proms), has, i think, set the bar higher than any of the last few years. ‘Duende’ is a somewhat complex Spanish term implying aspects of heightened emotional response to artistic stimulus, which the work’s soloist, violinist Leila Josefowicz, summarises as a “hypnotic, demonic zone in which a performer loses themselves in the feeling and emotion and in the physicality of what they’re doing […] and it can also be angelic”. To tap into this, and also partly to obviate the pitfall of rehashing conventions, Francesconi has sought to revert “back to primal matter […] something which is hidden energy; [an] unknown, uncharted land which is within each one of us, beyond originality”. Read more

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Proms 2015: Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (UK Première), Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. & Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.
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Proms 2015: HK Gruber – into the open …; Hugh Wood – An Epithalamion, Or Mariage Song (World Premières)

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Proms premières come in all shapes and sizes, and last week’s new works from HK Gruber and Hugh Wood were larger and more aspirational specimens. Scale and stature are different things, though, and despite their respective composers’ demonstrative ambition (and experience, composing veterans both), each of these pieces were hobbled by considerations that would have been less problematic in smaller-scale forms. Read more

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Proms 2015: Cheryl Frances-Hoad – From the Beginning of the World (World Première)

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Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet” visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe. Read more

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