Premières

Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 2)

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As i mentioned previously, allusions to or evocations of nature were few and far between at this year’s Dark Music Days, indicating the strength and diversity of Iceland’s more searching, abstract approach to composition.

This seemed to be precisely the point of Sigurður Árni Jónsson’s Illusion of Explanatory Depth, premièred by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason as part of ‘Yrkja’, an annual programme to support up-and-coming composers. More than most works I heard at this year’s festival, the piece was clearly all ‘about’ sound itself, articulated via an involving conversation between sections of the orchestra. It was exceptionally dynamic, fluctuating between overblown bursts of pseudo-romantic passion – principally heard in a short, recurring motif – and extended sequences of exploratory convolution. Over time, the orchestra never idling for a second, it created the distinct sense of an intense inner turmoil, governed by spontaneity – yet this sense was regularly challenged by that uncanny recurring motif. A fascinating piece. The same couldn’t be said for the other ‘Yrkja’ work, Lo and Behold by Eygló Höskuldsdóttir Viborg. Nominally taking inspiration from Werner Herzog, the piece was a pure slice of the kind of saccharine fare one is forced to endure throughout pretty much any nature documentary these days. It’s hard to find musical aspirations such as these admirable, particularly when they’re so overtly manipulative; it was like being continually poked: “be uplifted, be amazed, be joyful, be happy”. NO. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 1)

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It no doubt goes without saying that Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival is primarily named for the fact that it takes place in January, when the amount of daylight the country receives is minimal. In a less literal sense, though, musically speaking there’s a lot to be said for listening in the dark. I don’t just mean the obvious, actually sitting in darkness – the way that last year’s Dark Music Days got up and running – but I’m also thinking of the relationship we have with music, our expectations and considerations of it prior to, and during, the act of listening. Personally, I increasingly find that knowing less beforehand, going into a concert ‘cold’ without consulting programme notes and the like until afterwards, is a valuable, even vital, way to approach new music. Read more

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Karen Tanaka – Sleep Deeply

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While i can take or leave most Christmas music, i have a real soft spot for lullaby works setting texts that either allude to or directly address the sleeping infant Jesus. It’s a nice counterpoint to the shouty-shouty zeal that permeates a great deal of festive musical fare, but more importantly it invites composers to explore the most intimate, dare i say ‘snuggly’ side of their musical language. So the next piece in my week-long journey into winter is a lullaby composed last year by Japanese composer Karen Tanaka. Though not actually a Christmas carol at all, to my mind it fits perfectly in this context.

Setting words by Irish musician Michael McGlynn, Tanaka approaches the text in two ways. The verses take the form of personal reflections about the nature of Christ and the broader spiritual relationship the writer has – from birth to death – with what the figure of Christ represents. Consequently, these verses convey a nice mixture of introspection, contemplation and wonder, Tanaka’s melody having a simple, folk-like quality, surrounded by warm, balmy harmonies. The refrain is treated much more intimately, the words here becoming a lullaby sung to oneself, liltingly and soothingly inviting an immersive sleep in an atmosphere of safety and security. Throughout Sleep Deeply, a female soloist takes precedence in the verses with the accompaniment kept light, occasionally doubling or reiterating key phrases. But the ending is really special, Tanaka allowing the choir to elaborate just a little bit, finally repeating the word “softly” again and again as if savouring it on the lips and tongue, lingering over its sound and its meaning. And the unresolved final chord – which nonetheless feels final – couldn’t be more right. Read more

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Maria Kõrvits – Darkness and Deeper Dark (World Première)

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This morning (at 4:19am to be precise) saw the winter solstice, making this the northern hemisphere’s shortest day and the start of not only the season of winter but also a host of traditional festive periods. Being the day when we’re dominated most by night, it’s an ideal moment to spend time with the latest work by Maria Kõrvits, Darkness and Deeper Dark. To an extent, it continues a preoccupation from Kõrvits’ previous work Öö [Night], premièred earlier this year at the World Music Days, though where that piece was concerned with obscuring the distinction between melody and embellishment, her new work inhabits a place where any notion of such things is more or less lost entirely.

Composed for strings, a great deal of the piece behaves in essence like a noise study. Indeed, for the first couple of minutes pretty much all we hear is pure friction, creating a thick band of noise within which faint traces of individual pitches can just about be discerned. A few pitches protrude a little more after this, but they become lost in what by now is becoming a densely cluttered ball of seething movement: activity absolutely everywhere, details nowhere to be heard. Only when it dies back to a whisper does something a little more tangible begin to emerge, though in the form of tremulous surges like gangs of angry hornets, creating buzz-clusters around various possible pitch centres that, as a result, are all massively smudged. Read more

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Age Veeroos – Külmking (World Première)

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It’s nice, sometimes, when a composition isn’t concerned with layers of complexity and subtext, but instead focuses on a single idea. So as the days grow increasingly cold (here in the UK, at least), it seems an ideal time to explore one of Age Veeroos‘ latest works, the title of which, Külmking, translates as “chills”. It was written for one of my favourite ensembles, Una Corda, an Estonian trio comprising harp (Liis Viira), harpsichord (Ene Nael) and kannel (Kristi Mühling). Playing together, these instruments make for a heady, even an opulent combination, but in Külmking they create an altogether different musical environment.

In essence, it’s an onomatopoeic music, manifesting both the source and the effect of the chills. This is primarily articulated in two highly contrasting kinds of material: clear, repeating notes and vague chords that more often than not are packed into tight, reverberant clusters. Veeroos uses these materials to generate considerable tension and drama. The former often bring about a kind of pressurised poise, the repeating notes not so much progressing the narrative as doing the opposite, staying put, actively fearful of pushing ahead. The latter provide release but not relief, increasingly wild bursts of discharged noise, the chords – regardless which instrument they’re on – detonating like small cluster bombs. Read more

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Tõnis Kaumann – Ave maris stella (World Première)

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During my week-long journey into winter, i’ll be veering back and forth between sacred and secular music. When i first heard Tõnis Kaumann‘s setting of the Marian hymn Ave maris stella at the World Music Days earlier this year, i have to admit it didn’t make a huge impression on me. Then, i regarded it as over-simplistic, a bit like an exercise, but i’ve since spent quite a bit more time with the piece and have come to appreciate it a great deal more. Kaumann uses two melodies, the hymn’s original plainsong and, more often, another melismatic melody that may or may not be based on a different bit of plainsong (if it is, i’ve not yet been able to find it in my Liber Usualis), mirroring its scalic contour.

The structure of the work uses the stanzas of the text as the basis for a sequence of shifting permutations of a small number of parameters:

  1. tonic: G or D;
  2. melody: plainsong or melisma;
  3. voices: solo voice, women/men, tutti;
  4. accompaniment: single-note drone, perfect fifth drone (both primarily sung by the men), or unaccompanied.

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Migrating Sounds

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i’m going to start with an observation, a complaint and a plea. Yesterday evening’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group featured four pieces of music that together lasted one hour and two minutes. The actual concert lasted more than double that length. It continues a trend that appears to be plaguing BCMG concerts more and more in which the duration of events has become in some cases massively extended due to the length of time being taken to set things up between pieces – exacerbated last night by having two intervals. Perhaps those organising BCMG concerts are trying to turn them into a whole evening experience, but for me it’s become an absurd example of (deliberately or otherwise) stretching out not very much music into very much concert. Not only does this break up the engagement factor – one’s focus being regularly interrupted – but it also makes for a huge contrast with pretty much all other contemporary music concerts i’ve attended lately (in the UK and abroad), most of which don’t even bother with an interval at all, even if the music lasts up to two hours. So my plea is that those who decide these things at BCMG acknowledge the fact that this approach needs to be, at least, massively reigned in, and that changeovers between pieces need to be quick and efficient – definitely without the need for an interval (or, indeed, two of them) to attempt to hide how long it’s taking. Read more

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HCMF 2019 (Part 2)

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It’s many, many years since i spent meaningful time in the company of music by Can, so i went to founder member Irmin Schmidt‘s HCMF piano recital last Thursday with precisely no expectations. What transpired was one of the most mesmerising, understated performances that i’ve ever witnessed in St Paul’s Hall. Though Schmidt was performing three works – derived in part from his album 5 Klavierstücke, released last year – they essentially coalesced such that they became three facets of a single train of thought. The innards of the instrument had been intricately prepared with an assortment of screws, rawlplugs and other gizmos, but this was a whole lot more than just a standard prepared piano. In the way Schmidt played, there was no qualitative difference between the prepared and natural notes – they all sounded as though they were an essential, intrinsic part of the piano’s tone of voice, so to speak, articulated with different kinds of timbre and pitch focus. Read more

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HCMF 2019 (Part 1)

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Last week i was able to catch a couple of days of the shenanigans going on at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It was strange not to be doing my usual thing of setting up camp for the whole shebang, but quite apart from it being better than nothing, experiencing a festival in microcosm like this is somewhat revealing. More than perhaps most music festivals, going to HCMF involves becoming a prospector, panning for gold in its welter of content. Personally, i’ve tended to find the nuggets of gold to be relatively few and far between, but when you find them it’s usually a pretty overwhelming experience, easily among the most memorable i’ve ever had. This proved to be the case again this year: some was worthless, some looked like gold but on closer inspection was just superficially shiny – and every now and then the festival really hit the jackpot.

Apropos: Termite Territory, by composer-in-residence Hanna Hartman, receiving its first UK performance on Thursday afternoon by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. It looked at first glance to be a not particularly promising mucking around with close-miced bits of corrugated cardboard. However, its highly episodic structure – each episode involving a different approach to the way the cardboard was wielded by the five players – turned out to be deeply engrossing. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 2)

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Being the host nation, music from Norway was especially well-represented at this year’s Nordic Music Days in Bodø. Harnessing the large and impressive organ of Bodø Cathedral, Trond Kverno‘s Triptychon 2 was one of the fieriest things i heard at the festival. We tend to think of toccatas as fast-flowing, though the ones that appeared here were often crushingly strong, to the point that it sounded as if their notes were audibly fusing into dense clusters. Its more ruminative middle movement only made the powerful outer sections sound more assertive, the final movement managing to turn a pedal point into an aggressive surge before letting high notes hang while the pedals became pushy in the depths. And just when it seemed the work couldn’t get any more forceful, organist Gro Bergrabb’s rendition of the final climax was so crashing it practically threatened the integrity of the building. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 1)

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Founded in 1888, the annual Nordic Music Days is one of the oldest contemporary music festivals in the world. It’s a peripatetic festival, moving from place to place each year, and for 2019 – surprisingly, for the first time – it moved north of the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø (‘boo-duh’) in the north of Norway. As its name suggests, the festival is an opportunity for composers and performers from throughout the Nordic region to meet, collaborate and showcase to the wider world the range and diversity of their music-making.

The country that unfortunately came off worst this year – with disappointing consistency – was Denmark. Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard took no fewer than 50 triangles for his Triangular Mass – and then gave them little more than a continual, barely-changing tremolando for ten minutes. That was boring enough, but the fact that the work was conceived to be performable by any group of people, irrespective of musical training, only made such basic material seem not merely deficient but patronising; non-musicians are capable of a great deal more than just that. Loïc Destremau‘s string quartet Spoken Music had more going for it, but it was one of a number of pieces at NMD 2019 that became so interested in either technical or extra-musical elements that their actual musical interest was greatly reduced. In this case, while Destremau’s exploration of how speech can modulate conventionally-performed materials by the quartet was an interesting idea, the actual resulting music was extremely dull. Read more

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Stuart MacRae – Prometheus Symphony (World Première)

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i’m concluding this brief look at three recent new symphonies with one by another Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae. As in James MacMillan’s latest symphony, MacRae has also turned to mythology for inspiration, drawing on the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus. According to legend – as recounted by 8th century poet Hesiod – Prometheus created humanity from clay, and then gave to them fire that he had stolen from the gods, in order to enable their development towards civilisation. Zeus, king of the gods, retaliated by punishing Prometheus by binding him to a rock and each day sending an eagle that would devour his liver, which would rematerialise overnight. An immortal being, Prometheus’ fate was therefore potentially an eternal one, though – spoiler alert – he would subsequently be liberated, several years later, by Heracles.

That final part of the tale falls outside the scope of MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony, which briefly features the words of judgement from the gods before focusing almost exclusively on Prometheus’ lengthy soliloquised response to them. Structured as a diptych, the first half utilises excerpts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in addition to MacRae’s own words, while the entire second half is a setting of Goethe’s eponymous 1774 poem. In essence, then, the symphony is a protracted expression of bitter lament and angry resolve, given bifurcated voice via soprano and baritone soloists.

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David Briggs – Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes (World Première)

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One of the minor passions of my listening life, which i rarely write about here, is organ music. It doesn’t come up very often in the world of contemporary music, but it did a couple of months back in the gala recital at this year’s OrganFest at Llandaff Cathedral. Performed by David Briggs, on the cathedral’s newly-installed instrument, the entire second half of the concert was given over to a brand new symphony completely improvised by Briggs, grandly titled Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes. i’ve been fortunate enough to experience a number of Briggs’ live performances, and i’ve never heard any organist who has wowed me more – both his abilities at improvisation as well as his astonishingly effective transcriptions of well-known works of orchestral music (especially his Mahler symphony arrangements). The use of French in the title of this new improvised symphony connects the work to the 20th century French organ school tradition, though due to its three movement structure, and the nature of those movements, it resembles less the suite-like symphonies by the likes of Widor or Louis Vierne, being more closely-related to those of Marcel Dupré. Read more

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (World Première)

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Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.

James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Read more

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Chaya Czernowin – Once I blinked nothing was the same (UK Première)

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As i know i’ve remarked previously about compositions, size isn’t everything. Apropos: i’ve been spending time recently with a short work by Chaya Czernowin which, though it was premièred four years ago, only received its first UK performance last month. Once I blinked nothing was the same has a duration of little more than three minutes, but the enormity of what happens in that time span is considerable, hinted at in Czernowin’s enigmatic subtitle for the piece: “A large scale miniature for orchestra”. Read more

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King’s Place, London: Theatre of Voices – Baltic Voices

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Personality and connection tend to go hand in hand. This is just as true for getting to know a person as it is for getting to know a piece of music: we’re drawn towards or pushed away according to the ways in which its personality – its qualities and characteristics, the way it behaves – is conveyed to us. I was reflecting on this during last Friday’s concert at King’s Place featuring Paul Hillier’s vocal group Theatre of Voices, performing a sequence of choral works from Estonia and Latvia (although titled ‘Baltic Voices’, the concert did not include anything from Lithuania; a work by Rytis Mažulis was dropped from the programme). We heard works by five composers, and it was particularly interesting to note the marked differences in their respective musical personalities – informed in part by their relationship to earlier forms of music – and the effect this had with regard to engaging with and feeling connected to the music.

A context for this was provided by the opening piece on the programme, The Bishop and the Pagan by Veljo Tormis. Detailing the exploits of an ill-fated English missionary’s pilgrimage to Finland in the 12th century, Tormis initially mirrors the age of the story by employing a musical language shaped by the melodic contours of chant and the perfect fifth-laden harmonic strictures of organum. But from the outset it’s clear that Tormis is not engaging in some kind of postmodern exercise in pastiche. If anything, these overt allusions to earlier music turn out to be a ruse, gradually becoming more and more strained and contorted, peppered with obsessive syllabic repetitions, brief garbled asides and startling chord clusters soaring overhead. The result came across not so much as a conflict of musical languages but as both a homage to and an expansion of an earlier idiom, conveying a personality that was both solemn and, here and there, quite tongue-in-cheek. It was easy to connect to music that sounded so personal. Read more

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Proms 2019: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who took part in this year’s Proms première polls. As ever, there was a stark imbalance in the number of votes certain works received, but interestingly, whereas in previous years this tended to be focused on works performed earlier in the festival (since there was more time available to vote for them), this year more than ever there was a much more even spread throughout the season as a whole, including pieces premièred quite late. Not surprisingly, it was the better-known composers and/or the most substantial works that garnered the greatest number of votes, while the four short pieces commissioned to ‘respond’ to music by Bach received least interest of all – which arguably says something about how worthwhile it was for the BBC to continue to flog that particular horse.

Speaking of disinterest, it was one of those Bach-related works, Ailie Robertson‘s Chaconne, that received the biggest ‘Meh’ response overall, closely followed by Freya Waley-Cohen‘s Naiad, while at the opposite extreme, the work that proved most divisive was Tobias Broström‘s Nigredo – Dark Night of the Soul, with opinions strongly polarised. But away from the shrugs and the bickering, here are the main winners and losers of this year’s Proms, as voted for by you. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 2)

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A golden rule in cinema is “show, don’t tell”, reminding the director it’s invariably more subtle and effective to avoid directly stating the things you want the audience to consider and instead to incorporate them into the medium itself, in the process allowing for a more subtle, rich and wide-ranging interpretation of meaning. Following on from my considerations yesterday about the relationship between music and images, the latter of which had had a damaging effect on the former in some of the works performed at this year’s Ultima festival, i wonder whether an inverse of that rule would work well in music: “tell, don’t show” – tell us in sound the things you want to say, don’t put them up explicitly in front of us as words or images. To this end, the works that made the deepest and most profound impact during Ultima’s opening weekend were ones that sidestepped visual stimuli and engaged directly with the invisible and the intangible. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 1)

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When you listen to music what do you see? What does music look like, and what do images sound like? What’s the relationship between musical and visual stimuli? These questions became something of a recurring consideration during the three days of concerts i attended recently during the opening weekend of the 2019 Ultima festival in Oslo. To be more specific, these questions were caused by the prevalence of visual elements incorporated into many of the pieces being performed. While in some cases the music was enhanced, elsewhere it proved a great deal more problematic.

The most egregious example unfortunately came on the festival’s opening night, at a concert in the city’s grand Konserthus devoted to just a single piece, the world première of Lyden av Arktis (Sound of the Arctic) by Lasse Thoresen. Even before the Arctic Philharmonic began to play, issues were already raising themselves. Thoresen had provided not so much a programme note as an extensive blow-by-blow account of each and every detail of its highly programmatic narrative, inspired by and seeking to depict aspects of Arctic landscape, nature, experience and heritage. Quite apart from the fact that this is the worst possible form of programme note – effectively telling the listener (spoiler alert!) what they should be listening out for and how it should all be interpreted – the only meaningful way to have engaged properly with its tl;dr contents would have been to follow along with the text during the performance, which in the darkened hall would in any case have been impossible. Read more

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