Premières

Proms 2012: Simon Bainbridge – The Garden of Earthly Delights (World Première)

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The final Proms Matinee last Saturday week featured one of the more substantial and aspirational of this season’s new works. Simon Bainbridge has turned for inspiration to one of art’s most well-known and -loved works, Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (image), seeking to bring it alive as a chamber cantata. Composed for countertenor and mezzo-soprano soli with a modestly sized ensemble and additional chorus, it was given its first performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

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Proms 2012: Olga Neuwirth – Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory (UK Première)

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i’ve commented before on the number of contemporary concertos that crop up during the Proms, and we were treated to another one from Olga Neuwirth, a 20-minute viola concerto bearing the intriguing title Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory. It was composed in 2009 and premièred that year by its dedicatee Antoine Tamestit; on this occasion, the Philharmonia Orchestra was joined by Lawrence Power, conducted by Susanna Mälkki. Anyone familiar with Neuwirth’s surreal, left-field music won’t be surprised to learn that an amphigory is “a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody”. That tongue-in-cheek reference is matched by the more serious first half of the title, which is borrowed from a book that examines “trauma and the experience of modernity” in the writings of Baudelaire and Celan. Neuwirth sees to it that these discrete inspirational forces become incorporated into each other, the work presenting a weird and unsettling amalgam in which fragments from an assortment of earlier musics act as signified elements that regularly cause the uneasy relationship between soloist and orchestra to shift direction. Read more

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Proms 2012: Gavin Higgins – Der Aufstand; Gavin Bryars – After the Underworlds (World Premières)

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Almost two weeks ago, the Royal Albert Hall was filled with the timbrally distinctive strains of Great Britain’s National Youth Wind Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band. From a new music perspective, the concert seemed dominated by pairs: two orchestras and two conductors (James Gourlay and Bramwell Tovey), performing world premières from a brace of Gavins; and despite having discrete inspirations, these two new pieces sat extremely well together – indeed, they seemed to explore aspects of the same essential idea, but from very different moments. Read more

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Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)

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Last weekend’s Proms Matinee, given by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers and three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more

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Proms 2012: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 7 (UK Première)

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Despite the understandable reluctance on the part of contemporary composers to use the word, there’s nothing quite like seeing ‘symphony’ on a concert programme to get one’s blood and expectations pumping. When the composer in question is Per Nørgård, as it was last week at the Proms, then the excitement factor ramps up even further. Composed over a period of three years, Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony was given its UK première by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds; it’s a decade since the first UK performance of Nørgård’s last symphony (also at the Proms), and considering the aftermath—audiences and critics very sharply divided in response to what is an admittedly hard-going work—one can imagine a fair few people came to this concert with more than usually clenched teeth. Read more

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Proms 2012: Richard Dubugnon – Battlefield Concerto (UK Première)

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Concertos are a regular feature among the new works heard at the Proms, but it’s rare to hear one for two pianos; Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto, composed for those most characterful and quirky of siblings, Katia and Marielle Labèque, was therefore a refreshing break from the norm. It was given its first UK performance a little over a week ago by the Labèques with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Semyon Bychkov. Read more

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Proms 2012: James MacMillan – Credo (World Première)

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Wednesday’s Prom concert featured a new work from James MacMillan, a setting of the Creed from the liturgy of the Mass. Composers rarely set the Creed to music, not, i think, simply because it’s such a long and convoluted text (although it is, and this may also in part account for the dearth of contemporary Te Deums). What makes the Creed so different from the rest of the liturgy is its shift of emphasis away from God, focusing instead on oneself. “I believe” are its opening words, and all that follows embeds that personal belief into each of the facets that form the firmament of the Christian faith. So maybe its deep, direct expression of something so personal as faith may cause both composers and audiences to shy away from it. That’s a concert hall thesis; within the context of the actual liturgy, the same situation arguably arises as much from the fact it’s best to allow these words to come from the congregation rather than just the choir. But this Creed is a concert work; and that fact alone is perhaps cause for some celebration. Read more

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Proms 2012: Thea Musgrave – Loch Ness – a Postcard from Scotland (World Première)

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The Proms weekend devoted to youth orchestras concluded with that of Scotland, and fittingly the concert’s new work came from Edinburgh-born Thea Musgrave. She extended the theme further, choosing for her subject that most evocative of places, Loch Ness, known the world over for the mythological leviathan once purported to inhabit its depths. Read more

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Proms 2012: Bob Chilcott – The Angry Planet (World Première)

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The most ambitious of this year’s Proms premières took place yesterday afternoon: Bob Chilcott‘s 45-minute ‘environmental cantata’ The Angry Planet. Teaming up with poet Charles Bennett, Chilcott’s work was performed by the vast combined forces of three children’s choirs (from the London boroughs of Harrow, Kensington, and Chelsea and Westminster) alongside the BBC Singers, the Bach Choir and the National Youth Choir, plus soprano Laurie Ashworth—no fewer than 540 singers in all. The work falls into four movements, each of which contains several anthems; overall, the words move from dusk to dawn, exploring themes associated with environmental damage. Read more

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Proms 2012: Elaine Agnew – Dark Hedges (World Première)

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Yesterday afternoon’s Prom brought the first performance of Dark Hedges, by the Northern Irish composer Elaine Agnew. It was given by the combined forces of the Ulster Youth Orchestra of Northern Island and the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by JoAnna Falletta, with a solo flute part played by housewives’ favourite, James Galway. Before speaking of the piece itself, it’s worth highlighting the performance, which demonstrated in startlingly vivid fashion the skill and musicianship that young players bring to new music; their playing throughout was deeply impressive. Read more

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Proms 2012: Rued Langgaard – Symphony No. 11 ‘Ixion’; Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – Incontri (UK Premières)

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In a change to the planned schedule (due to Benedict Mason not having finished his new work meld), last Saturday’s Prom featured two UK premières, both by composers rarely heard on these shores. Difficult pieces—but for different reasons—they were given marvellously lucid performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Read more

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Proms 2012: Charlotte Bray – At the Speed of Stillness (World Première)

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Perhaps one of the more highly anticipated premières at this year’s Proms was Charlotte Bray‘s At the Speed of Stillness, which received its first performance last night by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder. Bray’s name has been growing in significance particularly in the last year or so; her inclusion on the LES’s 2011 list of most influential people in classical music was undoubtedly a combination of hyperbole and optimism, but this new work goes a long way towards consolidating Bray’s position as one of our most engaging composers. Her inspiration picks over a number of concepts arising from a line in a poem by Dora Maar (Picasso’s famous muse), “the hummingbird motionless as a star”. This led Bray to consider paradoxical notions of simultaneous movement and stillness, either (or both) of which may be merely ostensible. These starting ideas—so much simpler than the needlessly highfalutin concepts with which so many composers festoon their work—translate well into sound and, most importantly, can be easily grasped as the music plays out. Read more

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Proms 2012: Nicole Lizée – The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre-Optic Flowers) (World Première); Omar Souleyman (arr. Jacob Garchik) – La sidounak sayyada (UK Première)

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Yesterday’s late evening Prom with the Kronos Quartet technically contained two premières, although one of them hardly qualified. Jacob Garchik’s string quartet arrangement of ‘La sidounak sayyada’, by the great Syrian pop enigma Omar Souleyman, systematically undermined the fundamentals that make Souleyman’s music so weirdly irresistible. Kronos executed the music with their usual dollop-and-a-half of energy, but going through the motions simply wasn’t enough; without Souleyman himself in the spotlight, it just sounded hollow and forced. i’ve included the music for the sake of completeness—but do yourself a favour and listen to the original. Read more

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Proms 2012: Julian Philips – Sorowfull Songes (World Première)

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Yesterday afternoon saw the first new work to be featured in the Proms Chamber Music series. Sorowfull Songes is a small choral song cycle by English composer Julian Philips, setting five texts by the great Thomas Wyatt. Don’t be fooled by the title, though, as there’s nothing remotely Dowlandesque about either the words or the music; both Wyatt and Philips treat the subject matter with a glint in their otherwise doleful eye. Read more

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Proms 2012: Fung Lam – Endless Forms (World Première)

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The latest work to be premièred at the Proms was Endless Forms, by a composer new to me, Fung Lam, born in Hong Kong but based in the UK for the last fifteen years. It was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo who had replaced an indisposed Jiří Bělohlávek at short notice.

Inspiration for the piece comes from the closing sentence of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species:

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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Proms 2012: Kaija Saariaho – Laterna magica (UK Première)

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The first UK performance of Kaija Saariaho‘s 2008 work Laterna magica took place at tonight’s Prom concert in decidedly sumptuous company, Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Four Last Songs on one side, Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony on the other. It was a superbly-judged juxtaposition; while Saariaho’s music occupies places hard to define, nonetheless there’s often a kind of restrained opulence (i hope that’s not too strong a word) as well, lending her work a sensibility that one could almost describe as ‘Romantic’. Read more

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Proms 2012: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Canon Fever (World Première)

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The 2012 Proms season was launched this evening with the world première of a new work from Mark-Anthony Turnage. Titled Canon Fever, the piece is an unabashed concert-opener, as Turnage explains:

What constitutes a good concert opener? […] The music is irreverent; it doesn’t behave itself, it wakes the audience up. I hate well-behaved fanfares, the sort with clever little harmonic sidesteps and neat academic counterpoint. Give me messy, give me dirty. […] I wanted [Canon Fever] to be virtuosic but also slightly tongue-in-cheek and, hopefully, fizzy. […] I wanted to pack a lot in but not be too careful, so I let it spew out all over the place; there is a cascade of notes that fill up to breaking point. I could have been perverse and added metal scaffolding (brake drums and old-style hunting horns) but I wanted something useful, something that could be played by any orchestra, anywhere. (from an article in yesterday’s Guardian)

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir and orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy and reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers – the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner and Michael Seal) and a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West – in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives and hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth and 6) love—are all deeply significant and important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion and feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast. Read more

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Marc Yeats – sturzstrom (World Première)

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Two weeks ago, i was fortunate to be in the cool gloom of Beer Quarry Caves, a man-made cave network on the east coast of Devon. The caves themselves—resulting from two millennia of mining, beginning with the Romans—are fascinating enough, but i was there for something almost as remarkable, the world première of sturzstrom, the latest composition by Marc Yeats. Marc’s output is almost mind-bogglingly relentless, and he brings a highly infectious enthusiasm to every project he undertakes. This particular venture was no exception, the first in a series of four commissions under the umbrella title ‘Coastal Voices’, a choral project that “aims to give a new voice to the coastline”; Marc’s response was to create what he calls “a landslide event for voices”:

the work attempts to depict landmass movement and geological process as found along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Naturally, this depiction is not a scientific reconstruction of these processes in sound; rather, an imaginative response to these forces as perceived by the composer and amplified by the individual contributions of the performers. […] The successions of strata are documented through sound in the piece and these culminate in an imaginary journey along the coast, travelling west to east, before the landslide event occurs, setting the scene as it were for the catastrophic landslide (blockslide) that occurred at Blindon on Christmas Eve, 1839.

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Apologies; and forthcoming

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Apologies, one and all, for the lengthy hiatus here on 5:4. In a break with convention, i’ve been finishing off two or three new compositions and then—entirely in keeping with recent convention—fighting off a rather stubborn virus. Before service resumes properly, then, let me flag up a couple of performances of these new pieces that are happening next month, both at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The first is nolite facere dicunt enim, a work for 12 voices written for the vocal group Icarus, based at the Conservatoire. The group, which changes membership each year, is the brainchild of Chi Hoe Mak, one of the most wonderfully effervescent conductors i’ve ever met. It’s not a piece i want to say anything about at this stage, but you can take a look at the full score below. The first performance will be taking place on Wednesday 6 June; the concert starts at 7.30pm and tickets (undoubtedly very cheap) will be available on the door. Do come along and be shocked, appalled, enriched and/or entertained by it if you can.

EDIT: Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, this performance has been postponed.

Second is a work for voice and five players called the octave of the grief of the clone that leapt to the remainder of night sky; that title is taken from the writings of one of my ongoing inspirations, Kenji Siratori, as is the sung text, which uses Siratori’s poem Foolish/Moon. It’s not possible to show a score for this piece, as there isn’t one; the five players—clarinet, bassoon, viola, double bass and guitar—are all independent of each other and of the vocalist, although a couple of the players interact and affect the ensemble in different ways. This piece was written for the soprano Ruth Hopkins, who will be performing the piece with members of the ensemble Thumb, also based at the Conservatoire. The concert is on Monday 11 June, starting at 8pm; there may be a performance in Camden later in the year, but more about that as and when. Again, if you’re in the area, do come along.

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