Premières

Proms 2010: Jonathan Dove – A Song of Joys (World Première)

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i think Tom Service put it best, a few years ago, when he described the Last Night of the Proms as a “calcified cadaver”. It is, there’s no question: beneath the merriment and the klaxons lies an occasion that died many, many years ago; it’s a concert in aspic, filled with a misfitted agglomeration of works that culminate in a trio of singalongs which have at least made the transition from jingoistic anthems to party favourites. It’s almost as bad as Choral Evensong, for goodness’ sake. Anyway, turning away from such blatant party poopery for a moment, it does at least promise something new each year, and last night the opportunity fell to housewives’ favourite, Jonathan Dove, whose A Song of Joys was given its first performance, starting the concert.

Dove has turned to that most ambitious of poets Walt Whitman for his text, lines from the poem whose title Dove has borrowed for his own. And it’s a big text; the scope of Whitman’s vision is akin to that of Psalm 8, conjuring a vista of creation from the vantage point of song. Such epic scope as this makes it all the more disappointing that Dove’s response to the text is so simple and unimaginative. Dove probably wasn’t allowed longer than his 5-minute duration, but did he really have to move through the text in such a perfunctory way? One phrase dutifully follows another, never really bringing alive the words or tapping into their vision, still less presenting one of Dove’s own. It’s all terribly functional: loud and light, with lots of big tunes—but not a hint of the genuine, deep excitement from which Whitman’s words no doubt sprang. In fact, the choral evensong analogy remains apt; what Dove has composed is a secular but unavoidably John Rutter-esque anthem that would sit perfectly comfortably within an edition of Songs of Praise. So, was it suitable to start the Last Night of the Proms? with Tom Service’s description of the occasion foremost in mind: yes, absolutely. Read more

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Proms 2010: Robin Holloway – RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (World Première)

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Prize for the longest title bestowed on a piece in this year’s Proms must surely go to Robin Holloway‘s RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’, given its world première two days ago. Holloway has taken Schumann’s last five songs—deemed, it seems, by scholars to be of relatively poor quality—and both orchestrated them as well as providing them with a larger context, a framework within which they sit; Holloway describes how “[the] work as an entity … contains the five original songs as within a mediaeval reliquary, surrounding the precious remains within a suitable setting, tactful and unobtrusive for the most part…” (from the programme note).

To that end, Holloway has put himself in Schumann’s compositional shoes, to the extent that the opening Prologue works so convincingly as a preliminary to the first song, that i didn’t even notice it at an initial listening. This stylistic reserve continues throughout the song (“Abschied von Frankreich”); while the orchestration does sound, at moments, a touch richer than Schumann might have written, the language is faithful, with little to suggest a much later hand has been involved. Until, that is, the very end of the song, when a muted call from the horns causes the style to shift, allowing in some poignant dissonances, all the more cutting in this context. It leads pretty much seamlessly into the second song (“Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes”), in which Holloway’s voice is much more demonstrable—right from the start, in fact: the opening celesta motif almost made me gasp at its stylistic difference. But one gets the impression, quickly, that this song was most in need of assistance; Schumann’s treatment of the text (a prayer for her new-born son’s safety) is somewhat perfunctory and fragmented. While this isn’t helped by Holloway’s interpolation of a number of silences, it is significantly enriched with what he calls a ‘halo’, provided by celesta and strings, continuing throughout; it sits surprisingly comfortably above the song, giving it a delicate, even transcendent dimension. Read more

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Proms 2010: Tansy Davies – Wild Card (World Première)

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The prepenultimate première at this year’s Proms was one i’ve been very much looking forward to: Tansy DaviesWild Card, receiving its first performance this evening. i’m fortunate to have had a number of lengthy conversations with Tansy in the last year or so, and her compositional mind is an attractive combination of frivolous spontaneity and thoughtful deliberation. This engaging dichotomy is also brought to bear in her new work; indeed, as she says beforehand, speaking of the tarot cards that inspired it, “they’re all about systems and games, patterns…”.

It opens with the Devil card, the bass clarinet luxuriating in a kind of rude profundity. Melodies quickly develop, doubled on multiple woodwinds (strings form a backdrop), calling and swooping above the rhythmic patterns laid down by the percussion (the High Priestess and the Magician, perhaps). Texture is apparently just as important as tunes, though, and as the melodies subside, harp and piano introduce a series of rough, blurting gestures, the percussion tickling from behind. The two are then brought together; over an insistent bongo, the woodwinds bleat a fragmented tune, swiftly restoring the melodic ideas from earlier. In just a few minutes, Davies has made it clear hers is going to be a diverse piece, chopping and changing with serious alacrity. But likewise, what also becomes clear is that the programme note—in which she carefully describes her musical interpretation of each of the 22 tarot cards—could be a tad dangerous, potentially lulling the ear into perceiving Wild Card as a purely episodic piece—a kind of test where one listens out for and mentally ticks off each card as it appears. But Wild Card is more—well—wild than that; Davies has constructed a far more complex work than first impressions suggest, the ideas relating to individual cards by no means confined to neat, tidy episodes but recurring, quixotically, when it seems appropriate (or even inappropriate). Read more

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Proms 2010: Martin Matalon – Lignes de fuite (UK Première)

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On Thursday evening, the Proms was treated to the UK Première of Argentinian composer Martin Matalon‘s Lignes de fuite (“Lines of convergence”), tackled with obvious relish by the splendid BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The work opens, appropriately, with a single static line, passed between the horns, gradually coloured and fragranced by the percussion and woodwind; it’s a captivating introduction, pregnant with potential. Matalon doesn’t take any time whipping his material into shape, however; the music is positively marshalled around the orchestra. Special attention is given to the brass, who deal with their passages with brusque efficiency, while the strings (aided by celesta) strike more elegant poses, their lines almost coyly twirling their way upward. The structure is given space and more interesting shape by brief episodes where everything momentarily stops, a chance for everyone to get their bearings before launching off somewhere new. Read more

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Proms 2010: Graham Fitkin – PK (World Première)

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Graham Fitkin found himself in a sea of populism and accessibility for the world première of his new work PK, performed at the Proms on Monday. The title of his work comes from a reference to the Cornish village of Porthcurno—home of the well-known Minack Theatre, and where, coincidentally, i just happened to be a couple of weeks ago. The piece is related to the village’s connections to early telegraphic communications (Marconi’s ground-breaking first transmission took place only a short distance away, at Poldhu, on the neighbouring Lizard peninsula), and Fitkin has therefore turned to Morse code as inspiration for his material. Read more

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Proms 2010: Albert Schnelzer – A Freak in Burbank (UK Première)

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A week ago at the Proms—a more innocent time, before seemingly everyone started talking about Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new work for all the wrong reasons (Beyoncé) instead of the right ones (it’s crap)—came the first UK performance of Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer‘s wonderfully-titled A Freak in Burbank. Schnelzer is at pains to stress the connection he feels in this work to director Tim Burton, desiring it to exhibit a parallel kind of quirkiness to that found in Burton’s movies. The work began with Joseph Haydn as an inspiration, but while the size of the orchestra is of late 18th century dimensions, Haydn as an explicit point of reference is more-or-less lost entirely—Schnelzer’s half-apology that Haydn’s influence remains in “the use of G.P. and the transparent textures” isn’t terribly convincing. Read more

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Proms 2010: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hammered Out (World Première)

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Who’s this i see, shambling toward me like an unkempt Elvis Costello? why, it’s Mark-Anthony Turnage, the most unassuming pugilist in contemporary music. No-one likes to pick a fight in sound more than Turnage, and back in the early 1990s, when (thanks largely to Simon Rattle) he first became widely known, his orchestral pieces Three Screaming Popes and Drowned Out were an unexpected and very welcome intrusion into the largely rather staid fare then being offered up by more established composers. Two nights ago, his latest orchestral work, Hammered Out, was given its world première at the Proms.

Its opening sounds are fabulous—vast, radiant, angry chords, alternating with silly little rapid flurries; this is the Turnage one knows and loves. But then something beyond weird happens; bless my soul, can Turnage really be drawing on Beyoncé Knowles in the work’s first episode?! Back in early 2009, Knowles put out a stonker of a single called “Single Ladies”; a thin song, lyrically, but damn it was infectious, the absolutely scrumptious chorus buzzing with bass overkill. So what on earth is it doing here? The brief, brilliant opening of Hammered Out, we’re told, originates in Turnage’s forthcoming opera about Anna Nicole Smith (even more tawdry subject matter than Powder Her Face), a woman whose over-documented marriage was the subject of a great deal of grim squabbling, both ante- and post-mortem. The subtitle of Beyoncé’s song is “Put a ring on it”, so perhaps Turnage has his tongue in his cheek placing his quotation directly after the references to Anna Nicole Smith. Rational explanations aside, hearing Turnage’s attempt at transcribing it is seriously embarrassing (are those sleigh bells i hear, for goodness’ sake?!); orchestras just don’t ‘do’ dance music well—anyone else remember Adès’ “Ecstasio” from a few years back?—and i found myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat. Read more

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Proms 2010: Bent Sørensen – La mattina (Piano Concerto No. 2) (UK Première)

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This year’s Proms has already had a couple of concerto premières, and the third, from Bent Sørensen, is one for piano and orchestra. Inspiration for the work, La mattina (Piano Concerto No. 2) is in part connected to Mozart, and Sørensen has opted for an orchestra of like size (no clarinets or heavy brass); while the piece is stated to have five movements, the transitions between them are difficult to discern, and it comes across more simply as an episodic, single-movement. Read more

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Proms 2010: Arvo Pärt – Symphony No. 4 ‘Los Angeles’ (UK Première) plus Mosolov

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Last Friday evening’s Prom concert, given by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, brought to the UK Arvo Pärt‘s first symphony in almost four decades: his fourth, subtitled (with both geographical and theological connotations) ‘Los Angeles’.

However, before Pärt’s work—in an imaginative, even provocative bit of concert programming—came a short work by the relatively obscure Russian composer Alexander Molosov: The Foundry. More boisterous than bombastic, Molosov’s work is a soaring paean to industry, not merely praising but actually personifying the relentless energy and force of contemporary machinery. The pace isn’t particularly quick, but the sheer power expressed in the music is rather daunting. Molosov’s orchestral writing is bold and exhilarating, the brass writing in particular (especially the eight horns, 2’05” into the recording) perhaps laying down the groundwork for the kind of material John Williams would compose in his film scores 50 years later. Its quality makes it all the more tragic that the remaining portions of Molosov’s ballet suite Steel (of which The Foundry was the opening movement) are lost. The conclusion of the piece brought to mind a portion of John Ruskin i read the other day (in ‘The Nature of Gothic’), where he writes of how one must “be satisfied to endure with patience the recurrence of the great masses of sound or form” and “bear patiently the infliction of the monotony for some moments, in order to feel the full refreshment of the change”; the conclusion of The Foundry feels almost as though Molosov’s ideas have left him, the music oscillating round and round and on and on, incessantly—only for the monotony to be thrilling broken in the work’s final flourish. Read more

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Proms 2010: James Dillon – La navette (UK Première)

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As far back as 1988, in his seminal essay on what was, at the time, laughingly called ‘the New Complexity’, Richard Toop described the Scottish composer James Dillon—even within that narrow niche—as an ‘outsider’. Over two decades on, in Dillon’s sixtieth year, little as changed; he remains relatively unknown within the UK, but one imagines this hardly troubles him very greatly; in the pre-performance interview snippet, Dillon comments on how “my references [are] very much not the kind of obsessions that seem to be peculiar to Britain in particular…”. Having heard already in this year’s Proms a fair smattering of the kind of ‘obsessions’ that do occupy the British mainstream, it took no more than a few seconds of Dillon’s La navette (given its UK Première last Thursday) to become aware just how different is the kind of musical language with which he speaks. His is a musical world seemingly without limits, certainly without borders; Dillon’s fascination with all manner of worldwide customs and philosophies informs his work from its conception to its surface. Read more

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Proms 2010: Huw Watkins – Violin Concerto (World Première)

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Tuesday 17 August’s Proms concert brought the world première of Huw WatkinsViolin Concerto, the second new violin concerto heard this season. The opening movement sets a commanding tone, its fast tempo instigated by the solo violin, surrounded by pointillistic contributions from winds and upper strings, firmly drummed in place with massive bass thuds. In no time at all, the soloist seemingly accelarates… only for everything to stop abruptly, and a brief lyrical interlude ensues. Gradually, the initial mood is re-established—although not the pace, which has been seemingly blunted somewhat by the interlude. Large, looming melodic suggestions are put forward by the strings, but the violin seems quite happy to ignore them all, dancing on their surface and into another lyrical excursion; for all its romanticism, Watkins is leaving no doubt as to who wears the pants in this relationship. And this is swiftly confirmed as the violin emerges from its episode into a manic burst of notes that gets the orchestra very excited (they clearly just want to bang a lot in this movement)… whereupon, once again, all is stopped even more demonstrably than before; this violin is something of a tease, is it not? Read more

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Proms 2010: Tarik O’Regan – Latent Manifest and Alissa Firsova – Bach Allegro (World Premières)

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For this year’s Proms, Saturday 14 August was designated “Bach Day”, and buried beneath all the BWVs were two new works, by Tarik O’Regan and Alissa Firsova, both works described as ‘arrangements’.

O’Regan’s approach, as he saw it, was to tease out ‘hidden’ musical lines within the opening movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3 BWV 1005. Who’d have thought that, buried within Bach’s music, was a whole load of post-John Adams material waiting to get out? The conductor, Andrew Litton, says in the interval discussion that his criterion for judging a great transcription or arrangement is “when you listen to it, you don’t wish you were hearing the original…”, and on that basis O’Regan comes off rather badly. All the same, Latent Manifest has some nice orchestrational moments, preventing it from being entirely dull.

Firsova roots herself in the last movement of Bach’s Viola da gamba Sonata No. 3 BWV 1029 and, thankfully, she doesn’t try so obviously to be seen to be clever. The title, Bach Allegro, says it all; unlike O’Regan’s work, which was nothing of the kind, this is a true arrangement, allowing Bach’s material to stand squarely in the foreground. While the orchestration is a little dry, there are some beautifully quirky moments, including an amusing brief dialogue between tubas and piccolos (Berlioz would be proud), as well as a hilarious bit of counterpoint proffered by, of all things, a flexatone (Gordon Jacob would be proud). It’s by far the superior offering, and the audience was clearly able to perceive that as well. Read more

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Proms 2010: Stephen Montague – Wilful Chants (World Première) plus Takemitsu

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A world première from Stephen Montague is always an exciting prospect; while hardly an avant-garde figure, he’s highly unpredictable, and one imagines neither the BBC nor the audience could have envisaged what Montague would ultimately present them with in his new work Wilful Chants, given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus with London Brass and O Duo, on 8 August. The work states its intentions immediately, opening with a hectic maelstrom of vocal sounds including half-whispered words, rolled ‘r’s, loud chanting, glissandos, whistles, guttural grunts and the like. The cumulative effect, driven along by a brisk pulse, is entrancing, even hypnotic, the ear constantly pulled left and right, by no means making out the filigree of details (which is hardly the point), but simply trying to hold on for the ride. A climax is reached, and things shift into pitched territory, the brass making uncanny, muted oscillations that suddenly bloom as a dark chorale, into which the choir is swiftly drawn, although remaining in the middleground at this point. A more simplistic chorale follows, sounding distinctly eastern-European; the occasionally half-heard brass oscillations keep things from becoming too conventional or familiar, however, and as the resultant high point appears to be becoming all too generic, it pulls itself apart before getting too portentous, dissolving in a new plethora of noises, accompanied by percussive clatterings. And in no time at all, the conventional trappings are long forgotten as merry mayhem breaks out everywhere, the two elements—noise and song—wonderfully blended in a thrilling street party of a finale. Read more

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Proms 2010: Hans Abrahamsen – Wald (UK Première) plus Knussen, Bedford and Benjamin

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So, where were we? Ah yes, The Proms; my catchup starts with the concert that took place on Friday 6 August, given by the splendid Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Oliver Knussen‘s Two Organa is a work all the more engaging for its entirely lopsided nature. The first ‘organum’, “Notre Dame des Jouets”, could perhaps best be described as “sugar and spice and all things nice” (although without very much spice); exploring just white notes, it’s derived from an earlier incarnation, composed for a diatonic music box, and while undeniably rather fun, there’s little more going on beyond froth and fancy. The latter movement, on the other hand, could not be more different, drawing heavily on Knussen’s more characteristic, harmonically rich palette. In the wake of such a frivolous predecessor, the dense, concentric lines at work here come as something of a shock, given gravitas by the imposing presence of deep gongs. But it restrains itself from becoming ponderous, swiftly reducing into a sparser mixture, the lines given more room to move, fragments of the imagined organum sliding in and out of view. Read more

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Proms 2010: Simon Holt – a table of noises (London & World Premières)

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This evening’s Proms première came from the pen of one of England’s most intriguing and engaging composers, Simon Holt. Holt’s music betrays little of the generic English sound that plagues so many of the ‘established’ (i.e. published) composers in this land—there’s no trace of the anodyne ‘Faber sound’ here. On the contrary, Holt’s inspirations and method of execution are cosmopolitan, highly eclectic and invariably utterly unpredictable, as is the case with tonight’s piece, a table of noises.

It’s a work that brings together such incongruous ideas as Peruvian box drums—from which the title of the piece is derived, being a translation of ‘mesa de ruidos’, one of assorted names for such drums—and Holt’s great uncle Ash (picture below), a significant figure in his childhood, up in the north of England (Lancashire, to be precise). a table of noises is a percussion concerto, and while percussion continues to be the most hackneyed group of instruments in contemporary instrumental composition, what Holt does with it is strikingly original. The orchestra comprises a selection of wind and brass, colouring the material with a slight abrasiveness that is entirely in sympathy with the atmospheric and often very sprightly solo percussion part. At around 30 minutes’ duration, a table of noises passes through no fewer than ten movements, that explore an exceptionally wide range of both timbres and performing techniques (so much so that George Crumb springs to mind). Above all, Holt clearly relishes the assortment of sounds with which he presents us, allowing them the freedom to speak almost relentlessly rather than resorting to mere novelty (the usual crime perpetrated against percussion). Soloist Colin Currie’s élan takes the work to even greater heights of exuberance; it’s just such a shame that a plethora of loudly-coughing invalids peppers the performance with their own noisome contribution—including just after the final note, a capital offence in my book. Before the performance is a brief interview with Currie and the composer himself. i’ve included with the recording a copy of the programme note from the official Proms guide. Read more

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Proms 2010: Gunther Schuller – Where the Word Ends (UK Première)

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At tonight’s Proms, almost a year-and-a-half after its world première, Gunther Schuller‘s Where the Word Ends finally found its way to England. It came in the hands of the splendid WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, in his farewell concert with the orchestra he’s faithfully served for nigh on 15 years.

One never quite knows what to expect from Schuller, but his works rarely disappoint. Where the Word Ends was no exception, being one of the most lush and exhilarating new orchestral pieces i’ve heard in a long time. Cast in four seamless movements, Schuller has packed the piece with the range and variety of material one might expect in a symphonic poem. In fact, it’s rather tempting to describe it simplistically as having “something for everyone”, although its progress from brash, modernistic ebullience to delicate lyricism is convincing and subtle. Moreover, the whole thing somehow holds together and makes sense, although my ear found itself recoiling from one or two moments that sounded like so much generic contemporary music (or do i mean generic English contemporary music?). They were only moments, though; Gunther Schuller’s 25-minute span forms an object ever in flux, ultimately dragging the listener through the most vivid, exciting sonic landscape. Read more

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Proms 2010: looking forward/back; Claude Vivier – Orion (UK Première)

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The Proms season is upon us once again, bringing with it the lively hope of new commissions and world premières. However, a cursory glance at the concert season makes for rather damp reading, the commissions going to an unadventurous gaggle including Mark-Anthony Turnage, David Matthews, Graham Fitkin, Jonathan Dove and Huw Watkins. That being said, new works from Robin Holloway, Tansy Davies and Tarik O’Regan should make for more interesting listening, along with UK premières from Gunther Schuller, Simon Holt, James Dillon and Bent Sørensen. If time allows, each new work and other concerts of note will be covered here on 5:4, together with a recording of the performance. First up is Gunther Schuller next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, here’s one of the highlights from last year’s Proms season, and a work by a favourite composer of mine, Claude Vivier. It’s the UK première of his Orion, a work that emerged following the composer’s extensive trip to the far east. With a title like Orion, it’s rather too easy to reach for an adjective like ‘cosmic’, but that word absolutely applies; its 13-minute duration has a broadness of scope that is remarkable and highly evocative. While other composers are sporadically brought to mind (Takemitsu, Messiaen, even a hint of Varése here and there), Vivier’s sound-world—as ever—is entirely his own, and it’s a ravishing, exquisite sound-world indeed, which makes it all the more surprising that his work persists in being so unknown. Admittedly, there are layers of obtusity in Vivier’s structures and textures that, for all their superficial beauty, can cause one to feel a little uncertain, even lost. But i for one am content to be taken into uncharted waters by one such as Vivier; it’s music worth a bit of trust and effort. Read more

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Interrobang: Steve Peters – The Webster Cycles

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Two months ago, i reported that my ensemble, Interrobang, was to perform Steve Peters‘ remarkable ambient work, The Webster Cycles. It’s a work that’s entranced me since 2008, when it was released on CD, more than 25 years after its original composition date. It gets its name from the fact that the musical material originates in the Webster dictionary; Peters has taken all words that include just the letters A to G (being musical notes), arranged them in alphabetical order, and given them to players as a musical score. The words are grouped into seven columns, according to their first letter, and the result looks like this (click to see full-size):
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Interrobang – works by Ryoji Ikeda, Simon Cummings/Charles Tournemire and Steve Peters

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know of my interest in the music of both Ryoji Ikeda and Steve Peters. Later this week i have the privilege of directing works by both of these composers, at the next concert given by my ensemble, Interrobang.

In the first half, we’ll be presenting the UK première of Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous Op. 1, one of his only works for instrumental forces (alongside Op. 2 and Op. 3, also for strings). Op. 1 has been played by Ensemble Modern, but doesn’t seem to have been taken up by other groups, which seems strange considering how lovely it is. Also in the first half will be the first performance of my own L’Ensemble Mystique (Book One), a suite of arrangements of music by Charles Tournemire, for chamber orchestra. Tournemire’s music is all based on plainsong, and the original chants will also be sung at the concert, putting my arrangements into context. The second half is entirely given over to the UK première of Steve PetersThe Webster Cycles, the CD of which came almost top in my Best EPs of 2008. It’s a mesmerising piece that takes words from the Webster Dictionary and turns them into abstract melodic fragments, which overlap each other in aleatoric fashion.

The concert takes place at 7.30pm on Thursday 6 May, in the Recital Hall of Birmingham Conservatoire. There will also be a repeat performance of The Webster Cycles the following day at St Martin’s in the Bullring, starting at 12.30pm. It would be great to see any readers of 5:4 at these concerts—do make yourselves known if you’re there!

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Interrobang

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Apologies for the rather lengthy pause here on 5:4; for the last couple of weeks i’ve been snowed under with numerous things. The most important of them is the début concert by my new contemporary music ensemble, Interrobang, taking place in the Recital Hall of Birmingham Conservatoire next Monday (1 February), at 7.30pm. The programme is as follows:

Kenneth Hesketh – Fra Duri Scogli for six players
Paul Dolden – The Vertigo of Ritualized Frenzy. Resonance #4 for bassoon and tape [World Première]
Joanna Bailie – Charh for six players
Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 5 “Amen” for reciter and five players
Joanna Bailie – Five Famous Adagios for clarinet and string trio
Paul Dolden – The Heart Tears itself Apart with the Power of its own Muscle. Resonance #3 for 10 strings and tape [UK Première]

So… a pretty demanding collection of pieces, but all of them highly engaging, and often pretty mind-blowing. i know 5:4 has a pretty international readership, but anyone not too far from Birmingham, do come along if you can—it’s going to be a spectacular occasion, and lots of fun! Tickets are £5.50 (concessions £3).

An article about Paul Dolden, planned a long time back, will be coming soon, as will—i hope—the first 5:4 podcast.

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