Premières

Marc Yeats – rhêma (World Première)

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A few months ago, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series of lunchtime concerts recorded late last year at the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall in Salford, under the heading “New Tunes on Old Fiddles”. Each of the concerts featured early music played on period instruments, plus the première of a new work written for those instruments. The first, given by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, included the world première of rhêma by the English composer Marc Yeats. Read more

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Choral Evensong (Wells Cathedral): music by Judith Bingham, Philip Wilby and Messiaen

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Today’s service of Choral Evensong from Wells Cathedral—part of the New Music Wells Festival—broke the moribund trend of these broadcasts to celebrate English banalities in aspic, and revelled in a collection of new choral music.

It got off to a poor start, however; the American composer Gary Davison‘s setting of a text by Thomas Ken, Glory to thee, my God, this night, did little more than execute the most perfunctory and predictable word-painting; it’s an utter waste of a really rather lovely text—do we really need yet more composers incessantly churning out this banal brand of generic guff?

Following the first hymn, though, wonder of wonders: the alternative canticles! It’s incredibly rare these days to find a cathedral that actually remembers these alternatives exist, rarer still that composers see fit to set them to music. Kudos to Wells and to Judith Bingham for being prepared to break with Anglican tradition and be imaginative! Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion: Acrostic-Wordplay, Double Concerto, Gougalōn (UK Première) & Rocanā

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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James MacMillan – Seraph (World Première)

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James MacMillan‘s most recent composition, Seraph, a concertino for trumpet and strings, was premièred by Alison Balsom and the Scottish Ensemble a little over a month ago, at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Its bold, militaristic start immediately puts Shostakovich in mind, but this is supplemented with an obvious reference to Joseph Haydn. MacMillan takes the last movement of Haydn’s concerto as his own starting point, using a misquote of its opening phrase as a gesture upon which much of his first movement is centered. While the tone remains boistrous throughout, there are two softer episodes, welcome asides in what is otherwise a surprisingly workaday brand of music that, on more than a few occasions, crosses the line into pastiche. The Haydn quotation isn’t the only Classical affiliation; the presence of three movements—fast-slow-fast—is an obvious connection, and even clearer is the structure of this opening Allegro, replete with recapitulation. Read more

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Detlev Glanert – Musik für Violine und Orchester (UK Première)

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On 11 February, getting on for 15 years since its world première in Darmstadt, Detlev Glanert‘s Musik für Violine und Orchester arrived in the UK, in the hands of Stephen Bryant and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson.

The first movement, ‘Cantus’, is linked to Orpheus, who, according to legend, was an inspirational singer. Sedate and measured, the violin’s opening phrases—pensive ascending scales—are slowly taken up by the orchestra, leading to a rudimentary pulse. It may seem facile to speak of an ‘awakening’ at the start of a piece, but there is a distinct sense of the instruments flexing their muscles in readiness for what’s to follow. A confident sforzando begins the movement proper, in which the violin assumes an overtly ‘narrative’ mood, occasionally deviating from prosaic mutterings to engage in a flurry of melodic fancies that seems to receive an eager response from the orchestra. All the same, over time it projects a slightly empty and dynamically flat brand of lyricism, somewhat without a cause; it’s easy to be distracted by the delightful touches going on around it, such as the light repeated notes in the woodwind. Read more

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Gary Carpenter – Fred & Ginger (World Première)

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Radio 3 has featured a glut of premières recently, from a mixture of established and less well-known names. One such new name (to me, at least) is Gary Carpenter, whose new orchestral piece Fred and Ginger received its first performance on 17 February, broadcast a week later. A little over five minutes in duration, the work draws its inspiration from the characters of the title, Astaire and Rogers—or, more specifically, the ambivalent nature of their relationship in front of (elegant; suave) and away from (argumentative; turbulent) the camera.

It doesn’t start terribly promisingly; the opening gestures suggest the generic, empty kind of material that litters many contemporary scores (particularly those affiliated with Faber). But it quickly becomes evident that there’s more going on here than mere posturing: rhythmic convulsions that already hint at something dance-like; sustained tones that may or may not aspire to melody; spasmodic eruptions—initiated by the timpani—that are clearly going to be problematic as things continue. Despite seeming to be present merely to disrupt things, the percussion actually provide the impetus for a greater sense of both stability and direction, laying down the gauntlet, so to speak, by preparing a clear, consistent pulse. Before things really swing, however, the sharp angular shapes cast by the orchestra gradually assume a more lyrical demeanour—first on the strings, later on a trombone—and the work finally attains the epithets conductor Daniel Harding asserted beforehand, “wit and charm and elegance”. Read more

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Daniel Kellogg – Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (UK Première)

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Last autumn, on 27 November, at a lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, the renowned Takacs Quartet gave the UK Première of the American composer Daniel Kellogg‘s Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. As that title suggests, the piece draws on material from Schubert’s quartet, specifically the theme used as the basis for the second movement.

It begins with great slowness, presenting a chromatic, descending idea that has a tendency to end in emphatic perfect fifths. It’s a plaintive opening, only gradually hinting at material from Death and the Maiden; Kellogg allows these initial dabs of sonic stuff to slide around like beads of mercury, occasionally meeting and momentarily coalescing into something recognisable—Schubert’s first chord, for example, materialises only to vanish away again immediately. Eventually, the quartet makes an overtly lyrical statement, which becomes the cue for a launch into denser material and more aggressive interplay. There’s a sense here of struggle, of grinding away at something mundane, prosaic, before another abrupt shift, now into a more rhythmically driving section. Skimming the surface, the contours of Schubert’s melody now become apparent, and later, the well-known chord sequence is heard loud and clear, while the music’s grip on tonality wavers disconcertingly. Read more

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