Premières

Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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Wolfgang Rihm – IN-SCHRIFT-II (World Première)

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Earlier this week it was announced that the recipient of the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for music composition is Wolfgang Rihm, for his 16-minute orchestral work IN-SCHRIFT-II. Whatever people may say about Rihm (and, in more recent times, who hasn’t?), it was a superb decision, as this particular piece has considerable ambition in terms of both sound itself as well as the way it speaks within the performance space. Rihm is hardly the only contemporary composer to have these concerns, of course, but IN-SCHRIFT-II, despite or perhaps because of its brevity, makes an overwhelmingly immediate and deep impression that genuinely sets it apart from what one usually encounters in new music. And yet, to dance on the head of a paradox for a moment, you could easily argue that there’s not that much new about it—it certainly doesn’t break new ground, but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like anyone else, and in fact pretty much nothing about it at all sounds familiar. Rihm’s soundworld is remarkably immersive and attractive, non-threatening but nonetheless thrilling and in no small part that’s down to the very specific choices of instrumentation he has made, with heavy stress placed on lower instruments. Read more

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HCMF 2014: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Arditti Quartet

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The closing weekend of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was dominated by the music of composer-in-residence, James Dillon. Saturday found him represented by two major works performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick, the piano concerto Andromeda and the first performance of Physis, a work originally commissioned over 10 years ago by the Orchestre de Paris for the bi-centennial of Berlioz’s birth but, following various organisational machinations, not ultimately performed. Before them both came L’abscencia, a short orchestral work by the 2013 HCMF composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra. If last year established anything, it was that Parra enjoys creating highly intricate textures, and these were to be found in abundance. Particularly interesting was the work’s inherently conflicted nature, where unstable surface elements acted out upon a series of shifting but otherwise stable firmaments. Parra’s approach to orchestration pays attention to the lightest and most ephemeral of sounds, which quite apart from anything else makes his music highly attractive. The work’s closing gesture was pure beauty: a tense pause followed by a kind of accented sigh, faint harmonics ascending into the ether. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Monty Adkins + Britt Pernille Frøholm, Arne Deforce + Mika Vainio, Gareth Davis

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Last night’s and this morning’s concerts all featured soloists performing and interacting with electronics and/or visual elements within large-scale compositional forms. Monty Adkins‘ new 40-minute work Spiral Paths to some extent brings together the twin lines of enquiry that led to Four Shibusa (electronics with live performers) and Rift Patterns (electronics with video projection). Spiral Paths comprises five distinct movements, with a prominent solo part for hardanger fiddle—performed by Britt Pernille Frøholm, who also commissioned the work—and projected visuals created by Jason Payne. Anyone familiar with Adkins’ work over the last few years may reasonably know what to expect, but Spiral Paths goes deeper, or at least, pulls out a lot more stops. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Next Wave, Trio Accanto

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Most of today’s concerts were part of an initiative run by Sound and Music and NMC Recordings called Next Wave, showcasing the work of composers in higher education. The performances involved members of the London Sinfonietta, Sounds of the Engine House and ACM Ensemble, in an assortment of small size groupings. Highlights among the twelve pieces included Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP III, composed for cassette recorder (in the act of recording itself), piano and percussion. Both the soundworld and the form of the work are striking and very effective indeed, clear in its sense of direction yet with a pervasive air of spontaneity. The conclusion, entering a dark, hauntological space, was wonderful; the only danger with the piece was being distracted by the exploits of the players, especially the percussionist’s use of a bicycle. Weiwei Jin‘s Sterna Paradiaea, Returning… was arguably the most ambitious work of the day; the second act of a transm Read more

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HCMF 2014: Quatuor Bozzini, Electric Spring @ 20

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This evening’s (rather poorly attended) concert given by the Bozzini Quartet featured a trio of works by composers from their native Canada. Of the three, Martin Arnold‘s Vault was the most straightforward, the quartet for the most part enunciating a single melodic line as a single musical body, united by material, rhythm, dynamic and mode of articulation. It would be pushing it to call it interesting exactly, although for a time there was something quite enchanting about hearing the undulations of the line handled so very quietly. However, the decision by so many bronchitic members of the audience to cough their guts up during the piece severely undermined its hold. Marc Sabat‘s Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, receiving its UK première, explored “tuning differences between the untempered natural harmonics of the [quartet’s] 16 open strings”; using just intonation, this seemed to herald 25 minutes of microtonality, but Sabat’s emphasis is on just tuned triads, meaning that much of the piece sounded perfectly ordinary; the first movement underwent a gradual ascent to a high altitude where the unusual tunings, heard in gleaming harmonics, finally became obvious; the second movement initially answered this with a descent but its ultimate trajectory and purpose were very much harder to ascertain. Most striking of all was Nicole Lizée‘s Hitchcock Études, another UK première, where cut up sound fragments from a number of Hitchcock’s films—Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Birds—form the basis for the quartet’s material. In some ways the music resembled parts of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, although Lizée was concerned more with musical phrases coming from repetitions of non-verbal sounds. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Shorts, Feldman’s Pianos, asamisimasa

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Yesterday was HCMF’s annual day of ‘Shorts’, concerts of between 20 and 40 minutes, affording the opportunity to hear an exceptionally diverse range of music. Taken as a whole, it’s a cross between an Aladdin’s cave and one of those machines with the grappling hook that you find in amusement arcades: you’re not really sure what you’ll get, but every now and again it’s something really special. Among the highlights was guitarist Diego Castra Magaš‘ rendition of Michael Finnissy‘s Nasiye, a passionate work that transmits both dignity and authenticity, the Kurdish folk music that inspired it running like a thread throughout, movingly brought to the surface in its intense closing climax. Double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister gave a stunning account of two pieces by Catalonian composer Joan Arnau Pàmies, the latter of which, [k(d_b)s], set about forging a new musical language from scratch, de-coupling performance parameters and working with them independently; it began sounding like a swarm of bees angrily trying to sting their way out of a jiffy bag, but where it went from there is impossible to describe—suffice to say it was truly remarkable, and the same goes for Schulmeister’s performance, turning an ostensibly ungainly instrument into a writhing white-hot crucible. Read more

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HCMF 2014: James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen

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Walking away from a concert feeling perplexed about what you’ve just heard is an understandable and inevitable experience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Considering how many risks the festival makes, the diversity and juxtaposition of the programming, it’s pretty much unavoidable (“WTF” would make an ideal accompanying slogan should HCMF ever want one). Both of last night’s concerts resulted in precisely this kind of response, although for somewhat different reasons. Of the two, Simon Steen-Andersen‘s large-scale theatrical work Buenos Aires is the easier to qualify. Performed with admirable/abject dedication by the combined forces of asamisimasa and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, what it demonstrated more than anything was the remarkable breadth of Steen-Andersen’s imagination. Singers and instrumentalists alike were compelled to articulate under various forms of restriction and interference, in a context bounded by three large screens projecting images from various portable cameras, usually physically attached or held by those on stage. But to say what happened is very much easier than to say why; the general undertone is a sinister one, evoking the issue of dictatorship and the way opponents can be dealt with under their regimes and ultimately ‘disappeared’. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Bit20 Ensemble, Cikada Ensemble

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Last night’s and this morning’s concerts had much in common, beginning with nationality, featuring two Norwegian ensembles, Bit20 and Cikada. But beyond this, much of the music in each concert, although stylistically diverse, had a predominant interest in texture as the primary vehicle for their respective endeavours. The results, another aspect in common, were not uniformly successful. Cikada’s account of Jon Øivind NessGimilen, receiving its UK première, could hardly have been more rigorous and purposeful, yet neither of these epithets seemed qualities of the music itself. In many ways the piece is an 18-minute tutti, with minimal instrumental differentiation, all players working toward the same communal end. Which appears to be a series of episodes, characterised by distinct patterns of behaviour, some involving steady changes in tempo, one sounding like a torrent of Shepard tones. That makes them sound more engaging than they really were; their cycles felt hollow, a literal going through the motions, and the Stravinsky-like conclusion made one realise how much the piece seemed to be ballet music. Perhaps something visual would have filled in the blanks left by the music. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Lohengrin, Philip Thomas, Aurora Orchestra

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Not that the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival needs to reinforce its cutting edge credentials, but if it did, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin on the opening night would certainly do it. The piece is cast in a single act—but an act of what? this is the question that pervades the work and abides long after it has finished. The certainties are these: that Sciarrino’s starting point is Jules Laforgue’s story, featuring the figure of Elsa, a “virgin in distress, falsely accused of murdering her brother”, and that the music is performed by 15 players and three singers, the majority of whom are prerecorded and worked into an electroacoustic element, while five of those performers appear on stage alongside, most prominently, a solo voice. Everything else is to a large extent open to interpretation. One implication is that the soloist is Elsa, the performance physically informed by the plethora of intense emotions resulting from her fraught situation. Yet her words—always fragmentary, often expressed extremely quietly—encompass those of other characters too, in addition to portions of narrative. Putting that ambiguity on one side for a moment, the five on-stage players could be read as familiars of the soloist, and even, as the work progresses, emotional/psychological avatars, channelling aspects of her state of mind (particularly at the very end, when her voice becomes tightly constricted). Back to the ambiguity: the overall impression is that this is all taking place in the crazed, delirious mind of the woman, for whom the fragmentary, ephemeral recounting of events might be personal (i.e. she is Elsa) yet could equally be distorted/co-opted ‘memories’ from a story she perhaps once heard (i.e. she has reimagined herself as Elsa). Read more

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Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

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To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
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David Sawer – Flesh and Blood (World Première)

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For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more

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Philippe Manoury – Trauermärsche (World Première)

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A recent new work permeated by the subject of death is Trauermärsche for chamber orchestra, by French composer Philippe Manoury. By tapping into the funeral march idea, Manoury sought to engage with what he has described as its dual character, “at the same time something tragic but also something derisory … and macabre”, elaborating how the use of the plural in the title—literally ‘Funeral Marches’—is “because it will be like several funeral marches mixed together so one can imagine that there are several orchestras, one appearing when another disappears, and then the first one comes back, etc.” Although he cites influences from both Mahler (the famous ‘Frere Jacques’ music in the third movement of his Symphony No. 1) and Webern, the music of Trauermärsche is most concerned with alluding to practices of processional, with the funereal processions of New Orleans especially in mind. Read more

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Proms 2014: the premières – how you voted

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Having closed the 5:4 polls last week, it’s time once again to assess how you voted on each of the 21 premières at this year’s Proms. Having pulled around and crunched the numbers from various angles, here’s a brief summary of what emerged.


Worst New Work

Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace

Yes, exactly. Hands up who thinks that cheap imitations of sounds and gestures from assorted religions will, when idly thrown together, suddenly make everyone realise how silly they’ve been with their endless conflicts and all just get along? Oh put your hand down, Roxanna, you’re just being stupid.

Runners Up

Jonathan Dove – Gaia Theory
Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise
Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto ‘1914’

It’s easy to sympathise with the first two of these; neither Dove nor Ranjbaran even approximated an original thought in their respective works—and Dove’s offering is particularly egregious as it masquerades under a phony veneer of nobility, claiming with utter futility to be ‘about’ the theory of its title, a bare-faced lie that would deserve some righteous anger if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious. As for the Prokofiev, i’m still in two minds about it; it’s certainly hobbled by those weak first two movements, but there was some powerful stuff in the latter two.


Best New Work

Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes

For me, it was a toss-up between the Holt and Jörg Widmann’s Teufel Amor (which narrowly missed out on being a runner up), so this is a result well worth endorsing. On the one hand, there’s a sense that Simon Holt has had more than his fair share of performance opportunities at the Proms—yet, the consistency of his wonderful compositional imagination makes one feel a bit churlish for mentioning it.

Runners Up

Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser
John Tavener – Requiem Fragments
Haukur Tómasson – Magma

A good year for the Scandinavians! Magma was a sensation of free-form but entirely organic material, while Voice verser brought a delirious sense of unhinged expressivity rarely heard at the Proms. As for the Tavener, my preference would have been for Gnōsis; but maybe you heard something in the Requiem Fragments that i didn’t, or were at least more convinced by its jump-cut approach to religious text and sentiment.


Thanks to all of you who voted, it’s fascinating for me to see how you react to these pieces. Opinions seemed less polarised than in previous years, with more works meriting ‘Meh’ votes—for what it’s worth, the piece towards which you felt most indifferent was Judith Weir’s Day Break Shadows Flee, and who can blame you? Perhaps that overall response suggests a certain dissatisfaction with the quality of this year’s premières, and if it does, then i can only agree; there were some undeniably fabulous new works, but what the Proms seems to be crying out for is a revivified engagement with new music that’s rooted in a genuine sense of intrepid exploration: bold, ingenious and daring. The BBC have conclusively proved this year how much they lack this quality; one can only hope that the opposite turns out to be true of the new director of the Proms, whomever that may be.

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Proms 2014: Gavin Higgins – Velocity (World Première)

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In terms of volume, the Last Night of the Proms ensures the festival ends with a bang rather than a whimper. In terms of musical imagination, originality, provocation and insight, however, the reverse has long been the case, and the event today does little more than put the shit in shitfaced. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the premières commissioned to jump-start this party-cum-concert have for the most part become little more than functional bursts of effervescent froth, limp spurts of aural ejaculate that seek to tick the box of contemporary relevance before sagging back into its usual back-slapping melée of moribundity. Read more

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Proms 2014: Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise (European Première) & Jörg Widmann – Flûte en suite & Teufel Amor (UK Premières)

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Despite BBC Television’s astonishingly stupid recent efforts to reinforce this myopic dogma, new music does not and never has existed in a hermetically sealed, separate space, set apart from the entirety of music that has gone before it. Composers might sometimes wish it did (echoing Beckett’s “All that goes before forget”), but it’s a moot point; audiences—especially Proms audiences—cannot fail to approach contemporary music saturated with the knowledge and memories of a myriad earlier musical experiences, classical or otherwise. Excising new works from the BBC’s television broadcasts of Proms concerts isn’t merely a craven act of crowd-pleasing complaisance, treating music as little more than an emollient unction with which one can unthinkingly unwind, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the interconnected nature and context of the entirety of music. Composers squirm when you ask them about influences, but they’re there, sometimes very obviously so, and two of the most recent Proms premières, from Behzad Ranjbaran & Jörg Widmann, could hardly have made their earlier points of inspiration more clear.
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Proms 2014: Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première); Zhou Long – Postures (European Première); John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)

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The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment. Read more

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Proms 2014: Haukur Tómasson – Magma; Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser (UK Premières)

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Nothing remotely ordinary, it often seems, can come from Scandinavia. This notion was emphatically corroborated at the Proms in the recent pair of UK premières from Iceland’s Haukur Tómasson and Finland’s Jukka Tiensuu. i can’t help wondering whether they succeeded as strongly as they did in part for essentially the same reason, namely that they each embody a remarkable immediacy, even a simplicity. That’s not to say that these are simple pieces—they couldn’t be much farther from it—but there’s an overwhelmingly apparent sense of directness from both composers such that, put crudely, what you hear is precisely what you get. Read more

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Proms 2014: Ayal Adler – Resonating Sounds & Kareem Roustom – Ramal (UK Premières)

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Last week’s visit to the Proms by Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought first UK performances of works by two composers of Middle Eastern descent. Ayal Adler and Kareem Roustom, born in Jerusalem and Syria respectively, opted for compositional approaches that in some ways could be described as opposite. Adler, coming from a starting point of pure sonics (“an echo, or a reminiscence of sound, lingering after the vast chords slowly fade away”), aimed for an emphatic example of abstraction; by contrast, Roustom’s course was charted via the metrics of pre-Islamic poetry and a concrete intention to “reflect” on the ongoing violence in Roustom’s native land. Both works suffered at the hands of these divergent aims. Read more

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Proms 2014: Brett Dean – Electric Preludes; Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (UK Premières); Benedict Mason – Meld (World Première)

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New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance. Read more

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