A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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Proms 2016: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who expressed your views on this year’s Proms premières, it’s always fascinating to compare my own responses with those of so many others, particularly when we disagree! Since closing the polls a few days ago, i’ve fed the results (791 votes) into what has become by now quite a clever little spreadsheet—and voilà, here’s a summary of how you all voted.

Worst New Work

Lera Auerbach – The Infant Minstrel and his Peculiar Menagerie

i must admit i’ve wondered whether my own negative reaction to this piece was somewhat churlish considering how much fun Auerbach is evidently aiming it to be. Further reflections haven’t changed my mind, however—if anything, they’ve reinforced it—and the majority of you clearly felt similarly. To quote from my review: “doggerel masquerading as playful pastiche”; certainly a worthy (if that’s the right word) piece to be judged the worst of this year’s premières.

Runners Up

Magnus Lindberg – Two Episodes
Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures

Yes, i can see where you’re coming from. While Auerbach’s was, to my mind, the only really egregious example of barrel-bottom-scraping, Lindberg’s was almost an unimpressive. His work in recent years seems to exhibit a kind of laziness, relying on well-worn tropes, that’s disappointing considering how impressive have been some examples of his earlier output. In this particular instance, the Beethoven red herring gives it even less credit. Grime’s music clearly needs an overhaul, pure and simple. It’s limited in scope, tautological and superficial, which is all the more frustrating considering there are moments in the Two Eardley Pictures when one detects something altogether more engagingly nebulous lurking beneath that ultra-crystal clear surface.

Best New Work

Reinbert de Leeuw – Der nächtliche Wanderer

Not my own personal favourite, but a work i enjoyed very much. i still think it’s a risk, de Leeuw extending this lengthy nocturnal meditation to a duration of almost 50 minutes, but i still think he gets away with it (just), avoiding clichés and norms in favour of an ambiguous, spontaneous narrative that’s often strikingly vivid (i can never get that dog’s barking out of my head).

Runners Up

Jörg Widmann – Armonica
Michael Berkeley – Violin Concerto

For me, these were the real highlights. i love the mixture of simplicity and complexity that permeates Widmann’s luscious soundworld. It’s a tension that allows one to enjoy the work on a number of levels of engagement; i certainly find more in it each time i hear it. Berkeley’s concerto has, i hope, proved to those who needed convincing that he’s not simply one of the old guard, but a composer simultaneously looking back and forward, embracing the best of both worlds. Beyond this, it’s extremely refreshing to witness a composer being so emotionally raw, a quality that seems to have become alien (or, at best, rationalised) in most contemporary music circles. His concerto ranks among the very best new works that the Proms has heard in recent years.

And in case you’re interested, among the remaining premières, it was Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow that left most of you supremely indifferent, another verdict with which i can readily agree. Once again, i tip my critical hat to the acuity of your discernment.

As i said before the season began, i had been tempted not to bother reviewing this year’s new works, due to the timidity of the selected composers, and while it’s turned out to be more interesting than i’d feared, there’s no doubt at all that the Proms seems to have barely a clue about contemporary music. One of its worst offences, which i’ve probably mentioned every year, is its singular lack of interest in/awareness of electroacoustic music, expanding instrumental groups with electronics. It seems the Proms believes you’re either entirely acoustic and therefore classical, or you use electronics and you’re therefore pop. i couldn’t give a monkey’s about the Proms’ insistence on including pop-related concerts—that’s even less of a crime than clapping between movements (which isn’t and never has been a crime anyway, so shush)—but their ignorant failure to explore what contemporary composers are doing to integrate acoustic and electronic composition is as embarrassing as it is shameful. Proms director David Pickard seriously needs to up his game.

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Proms 2016: Tom Harrold – Raze (World Première)

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Quite apart from the manifold inherent issues with which the occasion has long been afflicted, the Last Night of the Proms hasn’t exactly acquitted itself with particular brilliance as far its annual opening world premières are concerned. Consider the last few years’ efforts from Eleanor Alberga, Gavin Higgins, Anna Clyne, Peter Maxwell Davies and Jonathan Dove, and you’re looking at a list of bland, lowest-common-denominator fripperies bound for oblivion. Mark Simpson’s splendid work sparks, from the 2012 season, is a lone exception to this, and so it’s nice that it now has a worthy companion in the form of this year’s offering, Raze, from Scottish composer Tom Harrold, performed with a seat-of-the-pants ferocity by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble with members from the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Read more


Proms 2016: Julian Anderson – Incantesimi & Paul Desenne – Hipnosis mariposa (UK Premières)

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As the end of the Proms draws nigh, the new works seem to have been taking on an increasing delicacy. And, to a large extent, simplicity, Julian Anderson‘s Incantesimi taking inspiration from the orrery, a mechanical reproduction of the the solar system, while Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne, in a homage to late singer Simón Díaz, draws on one of his children’s songs, ‘El Becerrito’, about a cow called Butterfly who has a calf (also known as ‘La vaca Mariposa’; words here), as the basis for his work Hipnosis mariposa. Read more

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Proms 2016: Thomas Larcher – Symphony No. 2 ‘Kenotaph’ (UK Première), Sally Beamish – Merula perpetua & Bayan Northcott – Concerto for Orchestra (World Premières)

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Following on from Emily Howard’s Torus, two further Proms premières have continued the relationship with the orchestral concerto archetype: Bayan Northcott‘s Concerto for Orchestra and Thomas Larcher‘s Symphony No. 2, which began life as one but developed in a different direction. Larcher’s symphony was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, but far from being celebratory, the piece, dourly subtitled ‘Cenotaph‘, is bound up in thoughts and feelings instilled by the ongoing refugee crisis. Although not programmatic, Larcher has used the symphony to compose an ‘outcry’ at the sense of helplessness he felt.

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Proms 2016: Piers Hellawell – Wild Flow, Emily Howard – Torus (World Premières) & Marlos Nobre – Kabbalah (UK Première)

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The most recent Proms premières have demonstrated particularly keenly the highly differentiated approaches being taken by this year’s crop of composers, and while some works at first glance appear to be nothing but effervescence and froth, closer examination proves otherwise. In the case of Piers Hellawell‘s new orchestral work Wild Flow, dedicated to and given its first performance by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, there’s plenty of froth, though it’s been whipped up into a particular dense and sticky consistency. Composed also to mark his own 60th birthday, Hellawell’s aim was to write “immediate” music that “wants to uplift and exalt the spirit”. Four of the work’s five movements are fast and energetic, around a slower central section. The opening, to a clanging bell, suggests the first round in a boxing match, and while Wild Flow isn’t exactly pugilistic, it certainly displays a kind of Varèsian muscularity crossed with a curiously gymnastic melodic attitude. Music seeking to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, perhaps? Read more

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Proms 2016: Georg Friedrich Haas – Open Spaces II, Gérard Grisey – Dérives (UK Premières), Mica Levi – Signal Before War & David Sawer – April \ March (World Premières)

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Finally. Five weeks into this year’s season, the Proms at last finds its way, Red Riding Hood-like, away from the safe, well-trodden path into the unfamiliar terrain of the avant-garde. Twice, in fact; first thanks to the London Sinfonietta, whose afternoon concert at Camden’s Roundhouse last Saturday (there’s presumably a clause somewhere prohibiting anything too radical from being performed within the Royal Albert Hall), conducted by Andrew Gourlay, presented new works by Georg Friedrich Haas, Mica Levi and David Sawer alongside, among other things, Ligeti’s great classic Ramifications. And later that evening, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra brought Gérard Grisey’s Dérives to these shores. Quite a day! Read more

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