Premières

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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Proms 2019: Errollyn Wallen – This Frame is Part of the Painting; Joanna Lee – At this man’s hand; Jonathan Dove – We Are One Fire (World Premières)

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Three of the last four world premières at the Proms have been vocal works, two of them for unaccompanied choir, the other for voice and orchestra. One of the choral works, Jonathan Dove‘s We Are One Fire, was commissioned as a birthday present for the 90th anniversary of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Dove turned to playwright Alasdair Middleton for a text that could serve as both a response to and an echo of the sentiment in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, celebrating humanity’s “shared ancestry”. Apparently, Dove wanted to compose “something joyous and tribal, but not using (or copying) any traditional music from another country”. It’s bizarre, then, that what Dove has created is so slavishly generic in its musical language.

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Proms 2019: Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (World Première)

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A week ago, the Proms saw the world première of a new work by no fewer than 14 composers. Conceived by conductor Martyn Brabbins as a 60th birthday present to himself, the piece is inspired by, and modelled on, the structure and character of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. For this new work, Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B., Brabbins selected a theme (keeping its origin a secret) as the basis for fourteen variations, composed by Dai Fujikura, David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Iris ter Schiphorst, Brett Dean, Wim Henderickx, Richard Blackford, Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Gavin Bryars, Kalevi Aho, Anthony Payne and John Pickard. (It’s impossible to ignore how much of a sausage-fest that is, but it’s Brabbins’ party so obviously he calls the shots.) The tempos and approximate durations of Elgar’s original movements are, with a few exceptions, generally retained in Pictured Within, resulting in a composite work that corresponds to the overall shape, nature and inner relationships running throughout the Enigma Variations. Read more

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Proms 2019: Benjamin Beckman – Occidentalis (European Première); Detlev Glanert – Weites Land (UK Première)

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Until last Sunday, among the new works premièred at the Proms there hadn’t been what we’re all used to hearing: namely, a short, ebullient romp that gets a concert up and running. And then, a couple of days ago, the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, directed by Antonio Pappano, gave the first European performance of Occidentalis, by US composer Benjamin Beckman. In his response to my pre-première questions, Beckman spoke about writing a piece that was a way of getting away from the vocal music he had been writing (as part of an opera), and the programme note explains the title by reflecting on the historical use of the term and its associations with travel – going west – as well as connotations of immigration with regard to the USA.

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Proms 2019: Huw Watkins – The Moon (World Première)

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There are times when it seems the Proms is incapable of commissioning a new work without foisting upon the composer some theme or connection that they are required to incorporate into the piece. The festival’s ongoing theme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings was brought to bear on yet another new work, Huw WatkinsThe Moon, which received its world première last night. Watkins opted to sidestep notions of spaceflight and technology in favour of something more romantic, turning to 19th and 20th century poetry about the moon, by Shelley, Whitman and Larkin, for inspiration.

The moon landings took place half a century ago, but listening to The Moon you’d be forgiven for thinking it was composed when notions of getting to the moon were still but a pipedream, yet to make it even to a drawing board. While not exactly pastiche, there’s an overt (even ersatz) early 20th century vibe permeating a great deal of the work. Clean, basic, straightforward, undemanding, every idea outlined in the musical equivalent of black marker pen; even before a few minutes have passed, it all sounds incredibly timid and tired. Watkins’ musical language has always tended towards the conservative, but i’m not sure it’s ever been articulated so overtly as here.

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Proms 2019: Outi Tarkiainen – Midnight Sun Variations (World Première)

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Composers generally tend to shy away from admitting their music to be overtly autobiographical, but in the case of the latest Proms première, by Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen, the piece is a clear extension – a manifestation, even – of the composer’s way of experiencing the world. In her answers to my pre-première questions, Tarkiainen wrote of her synaesthetic response to harmony, perceiving it as “various colour-shades of light, and my compositions make extensive use of modality, of ‘scales of light’, as it were.” This perception in turn feeds into a larger inspiration drawing on her experiences of arctic light, which is “rich in hues and varies steeply from one season to another”. Her new work, Midnight Sun Variations, can therefore be regarded as something of a double portrait, capturing an aspect of the natural world, and of herself: “In this work I am very openly what I am.”

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Proms 2019: Peter Eötvös – Alhambra; Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Premières)

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The last two premières at the Proms have both been concertos: Alhambra, the third violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, and Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul, a double-trumpet concerto by Swedish composer Tobias Broström. It’s been interesting to note how their overall approach to narrative is, at a fundamental level strikingly similar, while their respective modus operandi could hardly be more different.

As the name suggests, the inspiration for Eötvös’ Alhambra is the eponymous ninth century palace in Granada. By his own admission, Eötvös hadn’t been to visit the Alhambra before writing the piece (his first time in Granada was at the work’s world première earlier this month); the concerto is instead an imaginary walk around the palace complex and grounds. The nature of this walk, emphatically led by the violin throughout (with a scordatura mandolin as an occasional sidekick), is capricious. Its outlook is divided, inexorably drawn back and forth between impulses that tend to the reflective and the jaunty. The oscillating effect of this is demonstrated in the opening minutes: the violin’s opening solo, ostensibly searching, is suddenly forgotten in a flash of flamboyance; withdrawing inward, the music then opens out into a high register burst of lyricism, surrounded by chiming percussion – something that will recur several times during the piece – before descending into a rollicking sequence of pure merriment with the rest of the orchestra.

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Proms 2019: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – Metacosmos (UK Première)

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Performed last Monday by an orchestra combining students from the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School, conducted by Edward Gardner, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Metacosmos is a work i know quite well. Anna and i discussed it at length during our Dialogue together, and i explored the piece further following its first performance in Iceland during the Dark Music Days earlier this year. As i’ve noted on both those previous occasions, the work is somewhat different from most of the rest of her output due to its construction. Instead of opting for her usual kind of convoluted, unpredictable structure, Metacosmos is a complex but recognisable binary diptych, its latter section a refashioned – both shortened and lengthened – version of its former. The two sections are each set in motion via loud accents and a deep drone E, culminating some time later in a B-flat chord after which a melancholic melody emerges (in C-sharp minor the first time and B-flat minor the second time). That kind of structure is interesting in her work for all sorts of reasons, particularly when considering the inspiration for Metacosmos is to do with being “drawn into a force that is way bigger than yourself”, Anna citing the ultimate example of this as a black hole. Read more

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Proms 2019: Hans Zimmer – Earth; Alexia Sloane – Earthward (World Premières)

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The most significant love-hate musical relationship of my life has been – and continues to be – with film scores. Few idioms have the power to elevate, charm, horrify, astonish and amaze us more while at the same time displaying the irresistible propensity to eschew all originality and imagination in favour of the most derivative bluster and cheese. For me, the epicentre of this love-hate relationship has for many years been centred on Hans Zimmer. He’s someone whose work i’ve appreciated and enjoyed in the past: i think True Romance was the first time i really took notice of his work, and what he did for Inception is hard to beat. But his most recent work – especially his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, each film of which Zimmer has emphatically marred – has been an ever more reductionist descent into some of the most unoriginal, flaccid, bombastic and manipulative histrionics ever created: musica generica, made all the more horrendous to experience due to its inherent terror of ever falling silent. It’s not just nature, it seems, that abhors a vacuum; Zimmer has clearly convinced himself that if the noises he’s generating (yes: generating, not composing) stop for even a moment, then all hope of maintaining the film’s impetus is lost.

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Proms 2019: Zosha di Castri – Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (World Première)

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Many of the Proms seasons in recent years have begun with a world première, and that was again the case this year. In 2018, the opening work commemorated the end of World War I, whereas in 2019 the topic of commemoration is altogether more triumphant: humanity walking on the moon. However, Canadian composer Zosha di Castri‘s piece, Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory, premièred by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis, is concerned with more than just celebration; she writes in her programme note of “the noticeable lag in enthusiasm for further exploration since the late ’60s”, so the tone of the work is therefore somewhat conflicted. It’s worth noting that the broad scope of di Castri’s conception wouldn’t suit the kind of short, concert-opening firework that the Proms has often commissioned to get the season going, and it’s nice to see – as with last year – that the opening night première has been allowed a more generous duration, in the case of this piece around 17 minutes.

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Forum Wallis 2019 (Part 2)

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The main focus during the five days of concerts at Forum Wallis was on ensemble and chamber music. An important and impressive feature of these concerts was their aesthetic diversity, not showing a marked preference for certain kinds of music-making. This resulted in extremely different – sometimes, practically opposite – works sitting side by side, providing a shifting and engagingly unpredictable experience. That being said, diversity of gender was overwhelmingly absent: just five of the 39 works performed during the festival were by women composers, a pretty bleak statistic that artistic director Javier Hagen would do well to significantly improve in future years.

Three ensembles were featured: two visiting, one in residence. On the opening night, Freiburg’s Ensemble Aventure performed a programme focusing on Latin America. The only piece that overtly referenced this was Javier Álvarez‘s well-known Temazcal for maracas and tape, and while from my perspective the piece, despite its age (composed in 1984), has lost none of its freshness and vitality, it was interesting to compare notes with a trio of young Mexican composers (taking part in the festival’s Composer Academy) who clearly found it rather more irritating, particularly its (to my mind) amusing, folk-infused conclusion. Either way, percussionist Nicholas Reed’s rendition of the work was excellent, not merely meticulous but extremely elegant. Both Leonardo Idrobo‘s macchina and Graciela Paraskevaídissin ir más lejos positioned their materials with utmost care. For Idrobo, the music lived up to its name, turning Ensemble Aventure into a machine-like mechanism that nonetheless exhibited a great deal of spontaneity and caprice; Paraskevaídis’ music was more emotionally-charged, caught between seriousness and volatility, never sounding portentous but packing a lot of emotional weight that interestingly never quite resolved into something concrete. Quema, a trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Natalia Solomonoff, was similarly conflicted, alternating harsh, dissonant tuttis with more thoughtful, inward episodes where the players all felt constricted, as if struggling to make any sound emerge from their instruments; it was all marvellously dramatic. Read more

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St Mary’s Church, Penzance: Kevos – Old Kings in Exile

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Last weekend i made a pilgrimage to the far south-west of England to catch the latest concert given by (as far as i can tell) Cornwall’s one and only contemporary music ensemble, Kevos. The title of the concert, named after one of the works being performed, Old Kings in Exile, gave me pause to consider the somewhat exiled nature of Kevos themselves, located so very far from the usual locations we more readily associate with new music.

Directed by Patrick Bailey, on this occasion they presented five works, including a world première. It’s worth saying that, as he had the last time i saw Kevos in action, Bailey gave a short introduction to each piece, and they could hardly have been more perfect: enthusiastic and explanatory without in any way over-simplifying things for the sake of the audience; they really left you wanting to hear what was to come. That being said, not everything in the programme entirely lived up to Bailey’s keen words. Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s Grazioso!, though entertaining, seemed to exhaust its ideas relatively quickly. As such, there was the strange sensation that it was almost a piece in the style of Turnage rather than an authentic original, but it was nice to hear the irony of its title expressed in such a relentless way, like an exaggerated rendition of some much more mellow existing music, pushed here to extremes. Castles in the Air by young composer Oren Velasquez Hirtenstein was supposedly a memorial to Oliver Knussen, but it was difficult to engage with it on anything beyond an intellectual level. It’s perhaps revealing that Hirtenstein’s programme note commented on his having “cracked the code to one of Knussen’s favoured compositional devices”; what we heard sounded very much like the product of code-breaking: cool, calculated and methodical, but without any significant warmth or emotional depth that one might expect from a piece written in memoriam. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 2)

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The lack of ostentation in most of the music at this year’s Only Connect festival was perhaps nowhere more conspicuous than in a concert last Saturday devoted to French composer Pascale Criton. Performed by violinist Silvia Tarozzi, cellist Deborah Walker and singers Stine Janvin Joh, Signe Irene Stangborli Time and Liv Runesdatter (members of vocal group Song Circus), the concert featured three works of Criton’s. Two of them were solos, and they highlighted just how elusive is the nature of Criton’s material. In Circle Process, the whole nature of playing the violin wasn’t simply stripped back to its essentials, but sublimated and abstracted, Tarozzi primarily concerned with varying forms of friction, the by-product of scuffing and scraping her instrument. From such pitchless (non-)fundamentals, the piece opened out into a complex semi-focused pitch that, while never really deviating, was nonetheless permanently unstable. Only towards the work’s end did Tarozzi become more demonstrative, but even then her wild gestures were a litany of seemingly static harmonics that soon receded back to the pitchless place from whence they began. The process was somewhat reversed in Chaoscaccia, Walker’s cello setting out in a network of dancing ricochets and groaning pitches that occasionally moved close to forming unisons. Criton undermined the boldness of this opening by pushing the material back into nebulous, abstract territory, Walker giving convoluted articulation to harmonics that, again, were fundamentally static. The work’s conclusion was uncanny, a sequence of crescendos from nothing, each abruptly silenced, as if an unseen presence were directly intervening to cancel things out. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 1)

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There’s something absolutely right about the bringing together of Norway’s Only Connect – a festival that, as its name implies, encourages one to question (inter)connections between ostensibly disparate musics – with Tectonics, Ilan Volkov’s peripatetic festival the name of which evokes fundamental, underlying bedrocks that continually meet, connect and rupture. Taking place last week in the city of Stavanger, in the south-west of Norway, it’s only the second time the two festivals have conjoined, and the results were often appropriately volatile. That being said, one of the things that struck me powerfully during the festival – and this echoes my experience of Only Connect last year – was its almost complete lack of ostentation. The impacts it made were frequent and deep, but there was rarely an overt sense that this is what was actively being sought by the composers and performers. i’ve long felt that a certain kind of nonchalance – by which i mean the avoidance (or at least, the disguising) of obvious signs of audience direction or manipulation – is essential to the most powerful musical experiences, and at Only Connect that was its prevailing character, and i’ve no doubt this was a major factor in making those impacts as deep as they were. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 4)

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Aside from the chamber concerts, by far the most dominant force at this year’s World Music Days in Estonia was choral music. i’ve written before of my admiration of Estonia’s choral tradition – both the standard of its choirs (including, in my view, two of the very best in the world, Vox Clamantis and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) and the approach to choral writing by many of its composers, new and old – but this year, as with everything else, the concerts did not primarily feature home-grown works but were filled with music from around the globe. When the conjunction of text, music and choir is as its best, something genuinely magical can happen. Unsurprisingly, the festival had its share of pieces aspiring to that magic: some succeeded, many more failed, but a few clearly deemed it unnecessary to work for, or in any way earn, that magic, expecting it simply to happen on command. Two of the most glaring examples occurred in back-to-back concerts during the opening weekend, on Saturday evening. Estonian Peeter Vähi and Belgian Wim Henderickx both evidently believed that all it took was the throwing together of a few quasi-religious words, tropes, and mannerisms with a can-do evangelical attitude in order to directly summon up the numinous. Hardly: in the case of Vähi’s Siberian Trinity Mantra (a world première) it felt surprising, considering its purportedly earnest Buddhist underpinnings (explained at great length in a tl;dr programme note) how massively self-important and self-indulgent it was; Henderickx’s Blossomings. Three Prayers for a Better World was equally off-putting and fatuous, a simplistic blend of pseudo-‘holy’ blather so cheap and shallow it sounded like some kind of infernal Sven Grünberg / Eric Whitacre mash-up. Both works were lazy, pious and nauseating. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

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This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released. Read more

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