Premières

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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Bernat Vivancos – El davallament de la creu (World Première)

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Having spent two days with Italian music, to mark Good Friday i’m turning to Spain, and the music of Bernat Vivancos. Vivancos was born in Barcelona in 1973 and studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire and in Oslo; having returned to Spain, for the last five years he has been musical director of the Montserrat Boys Choir. In Holy Week last year, at a live concert broadcast from the Montserrat Basilica, Vivancos’ new work El davallament de la creu (The Descent from the Cross) was premièred, and it’s not only an interesting addition to the vast repertoire of Good Friday music, but one of the most visceral examples that i know of.

Vivancos creates the work from two kinds of material, utterly different. One of the organs (two are used) is like a force of nature, solely occupied with vast, violent fortissimo plunges from extremely high to deep rumbling clusters; these deep clusters are frequently repeated, like immense blows to the chest. Not so much against this but alongside it, the choir, mysteriously unaffected, move in the opposite direction, making a gradual ascent from an initial low register. Read more

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James MacMillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra (World Première)

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and throughout the next seven weeks, among other things, i’ll be featuring a selection of pieces suitable to the season. To begin, a recording of the world première of James MacMillan‘s anthem Domine non secundum peccata nostra, given by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. Directed by Andrew Nethsingha, the performance took place on Ash Wednesday last year, and also includes a solo violin, played here by Margaret Faultless. The piece is structured as a simple rondo, in which the refrain—heard three times—focusses on the essence of the text, words adapted from verse 10 of Psalm 103:

Domine, non secundum peccata nostra quae fecimus nos, neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.
(“Lord, do not repay us according to our sins or our iniquities.”)

MacMillan keeps the refrain relatively subdued, the words emerging from extended melismas over simple harmonies (the use of harmony throughout is simple). The violin nags away at the periphery, picking at notes, arpeggiating them, finally becoming a complementary melodic entity in its own right. There are two episodes, and both contrast strongly with the refrain, projected with much greater force. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Polaris (UK Première)

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At the Barbican this evening, Thomas Adès‘ latest orchestral work, Polaris, was given its UK première by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert. It’s fortunate indeed that Adès has left behind the ludicrously lavish plaudits that were rained down on him in a ceaseless golden shower throughout the mid- to late-1990s. For a time, Adès could seemingly do no wrong, irrespective of what some might describe as a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. However, both then and since i’ve almost invariably found myself impressed by the endeavour even if the achievement isn’t quite so convincing (i’m excluding Brahms; no-one should have composed that particular bit of doggerel). The recurring spanner in the works, it seems to me, is Adès’ penchant for playing intricate compositional games with himself; hardly problematic in itself, far from it, but one can’t help feeling the music often ends up being convoluted in an unhelpful way, obfuscating the clarity with which Adès clearly wants to communicate his ideas; put another way, his compositions often seem to be emotive or beautiful despite themselves.

Which brings us back to tonight, and to Polaris. Perhaps it’s just me, but from the opening minutes of the piece it all felt rather disconcerting; in a primarily American commission, Adès has, it seems, felt the need to draw on the kind of compositional mannerisms intimately associated with that country. From the overtly minimalistic material that both begins and permeates the work, to the quasi-tonal textural configurations that form a backdrop to much of the development, Polaris seems to project a ‘foreign’ tone of voice (both geographically and personally), not entirely at odds with Adès’ other work, but not necessarily in keeping with it either. Read more

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