Premières

Stephen McNeff – ConcertO Duo (World Première) & Kaija Saariaho – D’OM LE VRAI SENS (UK Première)

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A fortnight ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 80th birthday with a concert including a pair of premières, both concertos: one for percussion by Stephen McNeff (composed for the boisterous O Duo) and a clarinet concerto from Kaija Saariaho.

McNeff instructs the orchestra to establish the mood, the first few minutes of the opening movement filled with big, emphatic gestures. The contrast of the soloists’ entry—starting simply, using only their hands to slap, brush and tickle the instruments—is massive, and makes for a highly effective start. Influences quickly fly in both directions; the soloists echo and maintain the considerable momentum already established; in return, the percussion’s abrupt, restless material leads to hectic, spikey figurations in the orchestra. A marimba idea heralds a dramatic reduction in tempo, and with it a lyrical episode, in which the strings’ music is especially rich, their harmonies familiar but searching. The remaining few minutes are a tussle between these two moods, the more frantic ideas thrusting forth when they can; and while it’s the softer ripostes that ultimately claim the movement, the brass and timpani colour its conclusion with some brief, rather obstreperous gestures. Read more

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James MacMillan – Oboe Concerto (World Première)

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On 15 October, James MacMillan‘s Oboe Concerto received its first performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall, conducted by MacMillan himself. Taking the solo rôle was Nicholas Daniel, a performer who has brought numerous new oboe works to the world, usually at the more mainstream end of the contemporary spectrum. Structurally, at least, MacMillan’s work is entirely familiar, falling into the traditional three movements, even adhering to the hackneyed fast-slow-fast convention.

The first movement is an exercise in rapidity, Daniel barely given any moments to breathe amidst the endless scales and arpeggios. After a few minutes, having continued in like manner without let up, just as one begins to wonder if the movement’s actually going somewhere, MacMillan’s sense of timing reveals itself; the busy texture surrounding the oboe gradually disappears (returning to the movement’s opening gestures), and a brief, soft, distant string chorale begins, its solemnity a curious combination of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. All of which makes precisely zero impression on the oboe; on the contrary, it throws itself into a dithyrambic frenzy, its gestures coalescing on a nervously energetic trill. It comes as something of a shock to find the opening movement ended so soon (barely five minutes’ duration), just as it was starting to pique one’s interest. Read more

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Magnus Lindberg – Al largo (UK Première)

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A little over a week ago, on 13 October, came the first UK performance of Magnus Lindberg‘s new orchestral work, Al largo, given by the London Philarmonic Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. The title is an interesting one; as well as suggesting the musical term, associated with considerable slowness, the expression in fact refers to “being offshore, specifically referring to the moment when you reach the open sea and you don’t see the coast anymore, and what is before you is vast” (from Lindberg’s programme note).

The opening is all grand fanfares, dominated by the heavy brass (but nicely flecked with muted trumpets), out of which emerges a music in search of its own momentum. Bass drums make leaden stabs at something pulse-like, the rest of the orchestra respond with an inchoate morass of melodic tendrils; with Lindberg’s title in mind—and without wishing to get too Donald Tovey about it—this opening episode is highly suggestive of a boat slowly gathering speed. The grandiosity of the moment isn’t over-stated, however; Lindberg treads carefully through the momentous triads and imposing bass pedals, peppering the texture with softer woodwind flourishes, introducing a rapid chromatic motif that will become important later. After a short time it becomes clear that a pulse—at least, a clearly delineated one—isn’t a prerequisite for momentum, and the music charts a new path, one made particularly vibrant by the strings’ lush chords. Read more

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Vale of Glamorgan Festival: World Premières by Arvo Pärt and Arlene Sierra

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On 9 September, a concert given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music was for the most part concerned with the music of Arvo Pärt, featuring a new work commissioned by the festival, In Spe for wind quintet and strings. It’s a short piece, in which the winds take precedence at first: horn, oboe and bassoon take turns stating the work’s fundamental idea. The rest of the work is essentially a series of what E. E. Cummings might have called “nonvariations” on that theme; the melody is draped in constantly changing decoration, the voice moving between registers, inversions and retrogrades adding what little spice there is to be gleaned from Pärt’s agonisingly constricted use of material and harmony. Surprisingly, it all feels terribly technical; while the temptation with so much of Pärt’s music is simply to drift, switched off and blissed out, on the surface, i found myself pulled under during In Spe, staring at what lay beneath; i don’t think this is due purely to the paucity of invention on display in the work; Howard Skempton’s Lento goes round in even more demonstrably regular circles for much of its duration, but there the result is hypnotic and entirely convincing. Somehow, the material here all feels terribly workaday, almost like an exercise; unfortunately, as neither the inner workings nor their surface sheen are that interesting, this militates against In Spe, enfeebling it, even in its brief attempts at more dynamic strength. Arvo Pärt’s fans will be delighted; all the ‘tintinnabuli’ stuff is present and correct, and the piece presents them with absolutely nothing unfamiliar, nothing to think about. Read more

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Tim Benjamin and Francis Poulenc – Purcell Room, 23/09/2010

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Last Thursday i journeyed to London for a small-scale concert at the Purcell Room. On paper, the concert was being given by the ensemble Radius, but in practice only the pianist was present, supporting a quartet of singers. i’ll admit to being disappointed about that; i’ve not encountered Radius before, so it was frustrating to come away still having not encountered them. Two pieces were performed: Poulenc’s one-act opera La Voix Humaine preceded by the UK première of a new work by Radius’ director Tim Benjamin titled Le Gâteau d’Anniversaire.

Benjamin’s work can’t, in any accurate sense, be called an opera, comprising a single scene of barely 30 minutes’ duration. What Benjamin has produced, in fact, is akin more to a dramatic scena, except that it’s intended to be funny, so i guess we should rightly call it a dramatic scena buffa (or something like that). What unfolds is a dream sequence in which the protagonist, Louis, a baker by trade, receives visions from a pair of women who, at length, coax, encourage and downright insist that the reluctant Louis disregard bread-making for a time and bake them a cake. In the epilogue, Louis is awakened by his sisters, only to be reminded it’s their birthday, and that he’d agreed to provide his services to mark the occasion; no resistance from Louis this time, and the preparations begin. That’s it; except that Tim Benjamin’s lengthy programme note expounds the notion that the work is a “theatrical investigation” into “the oppression of, and liberation from, accepted convention and custom” as well as “the power of the subconscious to influence the conscious self through the medium of dreams”. Read more

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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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