Premières

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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Proms 2019: Daniel Kidane – Woke (World Première)

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Perhaps there’ll come a time when it’s possible to mention the Last Night of the Proms without also mentioning, usually in the same sentence, the word ‘tradition’. This is not that time. Whatever you may think of its entrenched traditions, one of the Last Night’s better ones has been the tendency in recent years to commission a new work to get the party started. Unfortunately, the majority of the chosen composers have opted into a parallel tradition: composing something trivial, frivolous and forgettable, the musical equivalent of a party popper, all streamers and flashes and a short burst of hot air.

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Proms 2019: Bach Night

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Here we go again. Four of the last premières at the Proms were the product of the festival’s irresistible inclination not to allow composers to just write what they want to write but to force them to ‘respond’ to earlier music. Last year, the most prominent example of this was The Brandenburg Project, and this year they’ve sought to repeat the idea on a smaller scale. Bach Night, which took place last Wednesday, included the first performances of four pieces each of which was composed in response to one of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Performed by the period ensemble Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt, all the pieces were around three minutes long, compelling the four composers – Nico Muhly, Stevie Wishart, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae – to create not so much responses as brief reactions.

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Proms 2019: Jonny Greenwood – Horror vacui (World Première)

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Any kind of sound processing – human, mechanical, digital – is a response of some kind: taking a signal, possibly analysing it, before doing something with it or to it. The latest new work at the Proms, Jonny Greenwood‘s Horror vacui, takes this as its starting point and modus operandi. In essence a violin concerto (subtitled “for solo violin and 68 strings”), the music extends the conventional concerto relationship of the one pitted against the many by drawing for inspiration on forms of sound processing, some physical, such as the ‘Palme’ speaker of the Ondes Martenot with its resonant strings, and some electronic, including delay, reverb and stretching. This melding of acoustic and electronic is fundamental to the work as a whole, which seeks to use the former to emulate and transcend the, as Greenwood sees it, limitations of the latter. Another inspirational element comes from the title, referencing kenophobia, the artist’s desire to avoid at all costs empty space. Read more

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Proms 2019: John Luther Adams – In the Name of the Earth (European Première); Louis Andriessen – The Only One (UK Première); Freya Waley-Cohen – Naiad (World Première)

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The latest crop of premières at the Proms have encompassed extremes of scale and duration. John Luther AdamsIn the Name of the Earth received its first European performance at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday by no fewer than eight choirs, comprising 700 singers. At a little over three quarters of an hour in duration, it’s by far the longest new work to be heard at the Proms so far. The UK première of Louis Andriessen‘s orchestral song cycle The Only One – lasting a mere 21 minutes – also took place yesterday, and earlier today the shortest of them all, Freya Waley-Cohen‘s 8-minute chamber work Naiad, received its world première at Cadogan Hall. Reflecting on these three pieces together, never has it been more true that size isn’t everything.

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Proms 2019: Dobrinka Tabakova – Timber & Steel; Linda Catlin Smith – Nuages (World Premières)

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i’ve often wondered whether, in music today, energy and complexity tend to be mutually exclusive. The whole ‘clocks and clouds’ dichotomy: regularity versus ambiguity, pulse versus drift, clarity versus obfuscation. This is certainly one of the considerations that arises from the latest pair of Proms premières: Dobrinka Tabakova‘s Timber & Steel, which could be described as acting like a metaphorical clock, and Linda Catlin Smith‘s Nuages, which in both its title and behaviour directly invokes the nature of clouds. In many ways they’re a polarised couple of pieces: Tabakova’s avoiding almost all traces of vagueness in its precise, relentless forward momentum, Smith’s obfuscating its reality in a floating, pulseless environment.

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Proms 2019: Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us; Alissa Firsova – Red Fox; Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto (World Premières)

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A few weeks back, when critiquing Hans Zimmer’s short work Earth, i almost held back from writing about the piece as it was taking place in a concert for children. i couldn’t help wondering to what extent it was fair to hold up something so intentionally superficial to critical scrutiny. Yet why should music composed with children in mind feel the need to resort to superficiality? Isn’t that making some fairly hefty assumptions about what children can engage with, enjoy and understand? In the case of Zimmer, the question is essentially moot, as Earth didn’t make any concessions at all to the children at the concert – except insofar as literally everything he’s composed in recent years has been an abject concession: to creativity, originality and imagination. Perhaps that suggests his film music makes that same assumption about what adults can engage with, enjoy and understand – indeed, perhaps it compounds its fundamental problems by making this assumption about children and then seeking to treat adults in the same way. But i’m digressing; that’s a discussion for another time; suffice it to say that, at his Proms appearance, Zimmer just sounded like Zimmer, regardless of who happened to be in the room, young or old.

Yet these same questions raised their head again at the Proms last Sunday, at an event called ‘Lost Words’, another concert aimed primarily at children (and/or treating adults like children). The concert was a uniquely bizarre mélange of cloying, alarmist, nostalgic propagandising about the environment, nature and language. It was a performance as difficult to negotiate as it was to stomach, including two world premières, by Jocelyn Pook and Alissa Firsova, performed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain with the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Jessica Cottis.

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Proms 2019: Dieter Ammann – Piano Concerto (“Gran Toccata”) (World Première)

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None of the premières so far at this year’s Proms has left me with a more conflicted first impression than Dieter Ammann‘s new Piano Concerto, given its first performance on Monday by Andreas Haefliger with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. The basis for that reaction is wrapped up in trying to decide whether the piece is full of contrasts or contradictions. Considering its essential behaviour, if were a 5- or even 10-minute work it would be quite easy to write it off as all – or at least predominantly – superficial froth. Yet at over 30 minutes’ duration, that’s not the case at all, it’s not a work that can be taken lightly. Yet the extent to which – and the way in which – it can be taken seriously is another quandary. One thing that’s certain, though, is the importance of its subtitle: “Gran Toccata” – any ‘toccata’ worthy of the name is going to consist of a fair amount of fleet-footed material that twists and turns in unpredictable ways. Ammann’s Piano Concerto doesn’t simply do this, it embodies this. Read more

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