Premières

King’s Place, London: Theatre of Voices – Baltic Voices

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Personality and connection tend to go hand in hand. This is just as true for getting to know a person as it is for getting to know a piece of music: we’re drawn towards or pushed away according to the ways in which its personality – its qualities and characteristics, the way it behaves – is conveyed to us. I was reflecting on this during last Friday’s concert at King’s Place featuring Paul Hillier’s vocal group Theatre of Voices, performing a sequence of choral works from Estonia and Latvia (although titled ‘Baltic Voices’, the concert did not include anything from Lithuania; a work by Rytis Mažulis was dropped from the programme). We heard works by five composers, and it was particularly interesting to note the marked differences in their respective musical personalities – informed in part by their relationship to earlier forms of music – and the effect this had with regard to engaging with and feeling connected to the music.

A context for this was provided by the opening piece on the programme, The Bishop and the Pagan by Veljo Tormis. Detailing the exploits of an ill-fated English missionary’s pilgrimage to Finland in the 12th century, Tormis initially mirrors the age of the story by employing a musical language shaped by the melodic contours of chant and the perfect fifth-laden harmonic strictures of organum. But from the outset it’s clear that Tormis is not engaging in some kind of postmodern exercise in pastiche. If anything, these overt allusions to earlier music turn out to be a ruse, gradually becoming more and more strained and contorted, peppered with obsessive syllabic repetitions, brief garbled asides and startling chord clusters soaring overhead. The result came across not so much as a conflict of musical languages but as both a homage to and an expansion of an earlier idiom, conveying a personality that was both solemn and, here and there, quite tongue-in-cheek. It was easy to connect to music that sounded so personal. Read more

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Proms 2019: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who took part in this year’s Proms première polls. As ever, there was a stark imbalance in the number of votes certain works received, but interestingly, whereas in previous years this tended to be focused on works performed earlier in the festival (since there was more time available to vote for them), this year more than ever there was a much more even spread throughout the season as a whole, including pieces premièred quite late. Not surprisingly, it was the better-known composers and/or the most substantial works that garnered the greatest number of votes, while the four short pieces commissioned to ‘respond’ to music by Bach received least interest of all – which arguably says something about how worthwhile it was for the BBC to continue to flog that particular horse.

Speaking of disinterest, it was one of those Bach-related works, Ailie Robertson‘s Chaconne, that received the biggest ‘Meh’ response overall, closely followed by Freya Waley-Cohen‘s Naiad, while at the opposite extreme, the work that proved most divisive was Tobias Broström‘s Nigredo – Dark Night of the Soul, with opinions strongly polarised. But away from the shrugs and the bickering, here are the main winners and losers of this year’s Proms, as voted for by you. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 2)

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A golden rule in cinema is “show, don’t tell”, reminding the director it’s invariably more subtle and effective to avoid directly stating the things you want the audience to consider and instead to incorporate them into the medium itself, in the process allowing for a more subtle, rich and wide-ranging interpretation of meaning. Following on from my considerations yesterday about the relationship between music and images, the latter of which had had a damaging effect on the former in some of the works performed at this year’s Ultima festival, i wonder whether an inverse of that rule would work well in music: “tell, don’t show” – tell us in sound the things you want to say, don’t put them up explicitly in front of us as words or images. To this end, the works that made the deepest and most profound impact during Ultima’s opening weekend were ones that sidestepped visual stimuli and engaged directly with the invisible and the intangible. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 1)

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When you listen to music what do you see? What does music look like, and what do images sound like? What’s the relationship between musical and visual stimuli? These questions became something of a recurring consideration during the three days of concerts i attended recently during the opening weekend of the 2019 Ultima festival in Oslo. To be more specific, these questions were caused by the prevalence of visual elements incorporated into many of the pieces being performed. While in some cases the music was enhanced, elsewhere it proved a great deal more problematic.

The most egregious example unfortunately came on the festival’s opening night, at a concert in the city’s grand Konserthus devoted to just a single piece, the world première of Lyden av Arktis (Sound of the Arctic) by Lasse Thoresen. Even before the Arctic Philharmonic began to play, issues were already raising themselves. Thoresen had provided not so much a programme note as an extensive blow-by-blow account of each and every detail of its highly programmatic narrative, inspired by and seeking to depict aspects of Arctic landscape, nature, experience and heritage. Quite apart from the fact that this is the worst possible form of programme note – effectively telling the listener (spoiler alert!) what they should be listening out for and how it should all be interpreted – the only meaningful way to have engaged properly with its tl;dr contents would have been to follow along with the text during the performance, which in the darkened hall would in any case have been impossible. Read more

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Proms 2019: Daniel Kidane – Woke (World Première)

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

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Proms 2019: Bach Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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