Premières

Proms 2017: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hibiki (European première)

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The music of Mark-Anthony Turnage has been on my mind quite a bit of late. i’ve been revisiting my aged CD of his seminal work Three Screaming Popes, released 25 years ago, which was also the first piece of Turnage’s i ever heard performed live, during my undergrad days in Birmingham. Thanks to Simon Rattle, during that time there were lots of opportunities to hear Turnage’s music, and the abiding impression i got was of a composer committed first and foremost to lyricism. Of a smoky, earthy hue, to be sure, and at times downright caustic in nature, but equally capable of astonishing tenderness and beauty. Borrowing liberally from blues and jazz, and often characterised with improvisatory élan, Turnage – i still mean early Turnage – made us re-think what melody was, in a way that was simultaneously rooted in layers of compositional tradition and performance practice yet so fresh and pungent as to be shocking (literally; i can still vividly remember the shock i felt in those long-ago concerts).

These qualities have hardly deserted Turnage over the years, though there are times when it’s seemed he’s more interested in rhythm than melody, particularly in two of his demonstrably less successful Proms premières, Hammered Out and Canon Fever. That path seems to lead Turnage only to empty bombast and pastiche, whereas when his lyrical side predominates – as in the recent string quartet Contusion, and even more in his wondrous 2012 orchestral work Speranza – the results are overwhelmingly powerful. This is also what we find in Turnage’s Hibiki, which received its first European performance at the Proms a little over a week ago. Hibiki was commissioned by Tokyo’s Suntory Hall to mark their 30th anniversary. Turnage conceived the work as “a consolation following loss” in the wake of the disastrous tsunami that struck the country after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, causing enormous damage and meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Read more

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Proms 2017: Judith Weir – In the Land of Uz (World Première)

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As i mentioned in my recent essay for Sounds Like Now, the statistics for contemporary music by women at the 2017 Proms concerts are lamentable: four-fifths of the new music heard this year is by men. Judith Weir is therefore something of an exception – doubly so, as not only is she fortunate enough to be included, but also her new piece In the Land of Uz is one of the longest new works to be heard this year, lasting nearly 40 minutes. So from this perspective, there’s an asymmetrical mix of cheering and booing to be made.

The same goes for the piece itself. Weir has turned to one of the more well-known Old Testament parables, the account of the life of Job, a man whom God happily allows to be horrendously abused by Satan, robbing him of everything, his health, his house and his family. While from a moral perspective this is all repugnant in the extreme, the story exhibits some interest in Job’s response, in which he comes to despise his existence but holds back from either accepting he has done anything to deserve this treatment, or from blaming God for his misfortunes (which, in the circumstances, would hardly have been unreasonable, or indeed unfair). You can take your pick whether Job’s convictions and endurance are deluded or admirable, but either way it’s a cornerstone of theodicy, and his emphatic reply “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” has become one of the most famous statements of stoic acceptance in the history of literature. Whereupon, with his life reduced to nothing, and having repudiated the arguments from friends who proffer suggestions as to the causes of his situation, Job is rewarded with a motherlode from God, restoring him to an even better situation than before all this sadistic nonsense began – though the Bible says nothing of the emotional trauma that would inevitably endure for the rest of Job’s (very long) life. The end justifies the means, i guess; another cornerstone of Christian belief and practice over the centuries. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Cheryl Frances-Hoad

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This afternoon’s Prom concert, titled Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present, affords the opportunity to hear no fewer than three world premières, each of them short works continuing the Germanic tradition of the chorale prelude, reworking hymn tunes. One of the composers featured is Cheryl Frances-Hoad, and as preparation for her take on one of the most renowned Lutheran hymns, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott‘, here are her answers to my pre-première questions along with her programme note. Many thanks to Cheryl for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Brian Elias – Cello Concerto (World Première)

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Around a month ago, i bumped into Brian Elias at the Cheltenham Music Festival, and we had a brief chat about his forthcoming Cello Concerto, premièred a couple of nights ago at the Proms. As i mentioned in my article with his pre-première questions, he expressed some reservations about including the programme note, worried that it might make people listen too analytically, trying to hear the structure rather than simply listening to the piece on its own terms. i encouraged him not to worry about this, and to trust that it would ultimately enhance the listening experience rather than distract or detract from it.

i’m still convinced that that was correct, though my own reaction to the piece, in light of that programme note, has proved interesting. Though i knew the essence of what it said, i’d forgotten the specifics, and ultimately opted not to re-read the note prior to listening. But as the Cello Concerto‘s half-hour duration slowly unfolded, the knowledge that Elias had created the piece using a carefully-managed structure, plus the fact that i’ve very much enjoyed his earlier work, began to make me more and more confused. Far from the programme note acting as a spoiler, try as i might i simply couldn’t – and still can’t – get my head around the piece. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Brian Elias

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This evening’s Prom concert includes the world première of the new Cello Concerto by India-born, British composer Brian Elias. It’s five years since his music was last heard at the Proms, when his powerful scena Electra Mourns (setting Sophocles) received its first performance, and tonight is Elias’ fourth appearance at the Proms. Although composed for Natalie Clein, due to her being unwell she’s been replaced for the world première by Leonard Elschenbroich, who’ll no doubt do a sterling job, but it’s far from an ideal situation for a first performance. Apropos, Clein has released a statement:

Brian Elias’ piece has been in my heart, mind and fingers for almost two years and I am devastated to have to withdraw from this wonderful Prom. But the piece will speak and sing beyond its dedicatee and I will truly be in the hall in spirit with Leonard, Brian, Ryan and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and all who hear its first (but not last!) outing!

In anticipation of this evening, here are Brian Elias’ answers to my pre-première questions, followed by the detailed programme note for the piece – which Brian mentioned to me recently some listeners may prefer to read after the performance. Many thanks to Brian for his responses and to Sam Wilcock at Music Sales. Read more

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Proms 2017: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Flamma (UK Première)

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i’ve written a fair bit about Estonian music this year, and in many ways composer Erkki-Sven Tüür breaks the mould. There’s not, of course, just one approach to be found in contemporary music in Estonia, yet significant evidence of outside musical influences (as i’ve noted previously) can be difficult to find. But this is not the case in Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music. Indeed, so emphatically is it not the case, that a few months back, talking with Erkki-Sven about his work during the Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, he went as far as to say that he feels he’s seen as an outsider, not even regarded, compositionally speaking, as Estonian. In due course, i’ll be devoting some articles to recent orchestral music from Estonia, which may prove that Tüür is not quite so isolated as he believes, yet the ferocious bullishness that often recurs in his work does set him apart from the majority of his compatriots. And it’s no different with Flamma, a work for string orchestra composed in 2011, given its UK première at the Proms yesterday evening.

It’s not just the bullishness, though; Tüür’s interest in working with tangible but abstract ideas – having not so much programmatic as metaphorical content – is another aspect that distinguishes him from much Estonian music. In Flamma (Latin for ‘flame’), he’s evidently seeking to tap into the physicality and connotations of fire. i don’t want to get too literal about it, but in the opening minutes one can almost hear Tüür stoking the work with fuel. Considering where the piece goes, it’s a nicely-judged opening, avoiding throwing us into a pell-mell firestorm in medias res. Instead, the first few minutes exhibit an alternating sense of momentum, grinding and surging but pulling back and even momentarily pausing before shoving its way on again. Only after this, two minutes in, does Tüür light the fuse. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Erkki-Sven Tüür

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One of Estonian’s best-known composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, makes his second visit to the Proms this evening, for the UK première of his work for strings Flamma by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (he was last heard at the Royal Albert Hall in 2003, with the Concerto for Violin). Like most of his fellow Estonians, Tüür’s music is rarely heard in the UK, so it’s a superb opportunity for audiences to experience his particular approach to composition (anyone expecting something similar to Arvo Pärt is in for a shock). As preparation for tonight’s performance, here are his answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Erkki-Sven for his responses. Read more

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