Premières

HCMF 2016: Shorts

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Monday at HCMF is each year given over to a day of free concerts, invariably coming up with a huge variety of musical experiences that makes for an exhausting but (at its best) exhilarating experience. One obviously has to pan for sonic gold on days like this but, as always, it was to be found in abundance.

Zubin Kanga‘s electroacoustic piano recital included _derivations by Australian composer Ben Carey, a piece that, unlike so many in the bloated player-does-something-and-computer-does-something-back category, demarcated the nature, roles and utility of its acoustic/electronic elements perfectly, producing a simple but engrossing study in texture. In the Town Hall, five members of Explore Ensemble gave a marvellously dramatic account of Gérard Grisey‘s 1986 work Talea. The music is very much more spontaneous than Grisey’s programme note would have us believe, and its considerable shifts in energy were navigated with real brilliance; violinist David Lopez deserves a special shout-out for his fantastic playing in the work’s dazzlingly virtuosic conclusion.

Susanne Peters and Sarah Saviet weren’t done any favours by having their piccolo and violin recital located in St Thomas’ Church, a building that is as attractive inside as it is an effective amplifier for every bit of wind outside. Considering by this time of the day Storm Angus was lashing Huddersfield in a way unlike anything i’d hitherto experienced during the festival, the duo were seriously up against it. Evan Johnson‘s L’art de toucher le clavecin unfortunately didn’t stand a chance; the beautiful way Johnson seemingly fashions the music from wisps of smoke was barely audible (and i should point out i was sat barely a couple of metres away). Bruno Maderna‘s miniature Dialodia fared better, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it morsel of light lyricism, the players exercising a modicum of freedom while remaining in each other’s orbit. Rising above the elements best, though, was Timothy McCormack‘s Glass Stratum, an exhilaratingly involving piece that first compartmentalises the players with discrete behavioural characteristics—the piccolo pensive, the violin more demonstrative—before causing them to permeate, penetrate, blend and merge, ultimately becoming dual aspects of a single musical entity. There was an intense air of intimacy throughout, as though the duo were playing to/with each other in private. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Trombone Unit Hannover, Klangforum Wien

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The palpable buzz surrounding events at this year’s HCMF featuring music by composer-in-residence Georg Friedrich Haas (of an order considerably greater than that of the previous few years) continued before and during yesterday’s morning concert given by Trombone Unit Hannover. This was no doubt due to the UK performance of Haas’ remarkable Octet, a piece i celebrated earlier this year, but prior to this were three shorter works for solo trombones (it was surprising and very disappointing that the complete ensemble was only featured in that one piece). Another work of Haas’,  aus freier Lust…verbunden…, one of ten solo pieces also performable as a decet, began by episodically exploring different takes, approaches and attempts at melodic utterance, moving back-and-forth between being open and muted (somewhat distracting on this occasion), before passing into painstaking gradations of microtonality (a hint of what was to come later), as though we had zoomed up close to examine the minute undulations on the surface of each pitch. More engrossing was Xenakis‘ short 1986 work Keren, taking the instrument on an even more exhaustive journey by turns fanfaric, lyrical, rude, plaintive, briefly lost and then blazingly focussed, prosaic and profound; having probed the extremes of the instrument, Xenakis finally plunged it into impossible depths. A piece that, thirty years on, still sounds impressively fresh. The last of these three opening ‘overtures’ was provided by Anders Hillborg, whose four-minute miniature Hautposaune is a witty cross between a duet and a squabble, the trombone grappling with a rigorously motoric tape part. Hillborg sets things up so that the one and only chance the instrument gets to break free of the tape’s constraints results in a helping of deliciously ripe cheese, before bringing about a furious, full-throttle conclusion, the piece practically crashing into its final barline like a train smashing into buffers. But, understandably, it was Haas’ Octet that emphatically stole the show, with its astonishing evolution through unisons, near-unisons, clusters, Shepard tone-like overlapping glissandi, quasi organum, harmonic series (beautifully executed with the ensemble partially muted) and ferocious buzzing growls. The way Haas imbues this overall evolution with such a seamless sense of organic inevitability is truly remarkable, and Trombone Unit Hannover’s ability to articulate each element with such ridiculous accuracy is just jaw-dropping. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Walking with Partch, Klangforum Wien + Arditti Quartet

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From queries to plings: following an opening night that raised more questions (and objections) than its respective composers perhaps intended, Saturday night at HCMF moved emphatically in the direction of the epic. Not simply in terms of duration, although that was certainly a factor: Claudia Molitor‘s 60-minute Walking with Partch, the world première of which was performed by members of Ensemble Musikfabrik, didn’t simply justify its duration but absolutely required it. Using a few of the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, the piece unfolds at a pace that allows everything, both the assortment of instrumental interactions and also the sounds themselves, time to speak, to resonate and to be considered. From the start, sporadic material from various players mixed with electronic textures, there was a clear sense of timbral connectivity, elements of imitation that later became more substantially worked into fully-fledged dialogues, usually but not always in the form of duos. While a great deal of Walking with Partch sounds like the product of structured and/or partially pre-planned improvisation, there were times when a broader impetus dominated the ensemble, such as when a strange triple metre initiated a kind of grotesque dance comprising distorted and contorted lines, or a later brass and bass clarinet trio that sounded like a disintegrated chorale. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Arditti Quartet + Jennifer Walshe, Ensemble Musikfabrik + Peter Brötzmann

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Music festivals understandably like to start with a bang; the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival began with a WTF. And not just one but two of them, courtesy of Jennifer Walshe with the Arditti Quartet and Ensemble Musikfabrik with Peter Brötzmann. Their respective ‘WTF-ness’ was partly superficial, partly the stark nature of the collaborations, and partly a by-product of the tenacity of the composers with regard to their ideas, in both cases perhaps best described as ‘dogged’. Read more

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HCMF 2015 revisited: Naomi Pinnock – Lines and Spaces (World Première)

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There are just four days to go until the start of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and UK audiences get the chance–denied them at most other festivals on these shores—to experience some of today’s most experimental, radical and open-minded music-making. All being well i’ll be there for the duration once again, but in the meantime, as something of an appetite-whetter, i want to revisit something from last year’s festival.

Partly but not entirely due to the presence of Jürg Frey as composer-in-residence, HCMF 2015 was characterised by a distinct thread of simplicity and restraint, obtaining the maximum effect, power and overall use from relatively spare and at first glance potentially unpromising material. Of course, in such contexts as these words like ‘simplicity’ and ‘restraint’ become themselves redefined, to the point that a pianissimo note from Jacob Ullmann becomes shockingly outré, or a change of chord from Chiyoko Szlavnics feels as though the whole world has either been tilted on its side or stopped spinning on its axis.

Lines and Spaces by UK composer Naomi Pinnock occupies a not dissimilar place of compositional thought. Drawing on the minimal abstract art of Agnes Martin for inspiration, the piece, for solo piano, is made up of six short movements, the even-numbered of which correspond to the lines of the title. Simplicity of the kind i mentioned above reigns here, each ‘line’ located around an extended, repeated middle C (the relative speed of the repetition decreases across the three movements). The first is coloured by a single C an octave lower, the second by a D and B immediately above/below, followed by some pedal smudge. The third is struck with a glancing triadic blow that retains more than enough consonance to keep the ‘line’ stable until it too is smudged before fizzling out, its string muted. Read more

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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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