Premières

St Peter’s Church, Drogheda: James Dillon – The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments (World Première)

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It shames me to admit that, until February this year, i’d never heard of Louth Contemporary Music Society. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous that i hadn’t: for the last seven-or-so years they’ve been putting on fascinating concerts featuring music by, among many others, Terry Riley, György Kurtág, John Zorn, David Lang, Sofia Gubaidulina, Michael Pisaro, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Tan Dun, Alvin Lucier and Éliane Radigue, performed by the likes of Musicircus, Kronos Quartet, Carducci Quartet, Ian Pace, Trio Mediaeval, Garth Knox and the Hilliard Ensemble, as well as several of the aforementioned composers themselves. Not being aware of such fantastical goings-on seems entirely absurd. Yet on the other hand, not only is pretty much everyone i’ve spoken to about them in the last few months equally unaware of these concerts, i’ve not encountered any promotion or discussion about them in the usual new music places. Perhaps the shame lies elsewhere. Either way, it’s time to shout out loudly about what’s really going on on the east coast of Ireland, and it’s largely thanks to the tirelessly enthusiastic one-man-bandery of Eamonn Quinn, co-founder and curator of LCMS, whose efforts have at last been celebrated with his being awarded the 2018 Belmont Prize for Contemporary Music (Alex Ross won the prize in 2012), a belated but very richly deserved acknowledgement of Quinn’s exceptionally open-minded and energetic approach to concert curation. Read more

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Royal Opera House, London: Thomas Adès – The Exterminating Angel (UK Première)

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Among the plethora of quasi-quotations that litter (and that is the right word) Thomas Adès‘ operatic ‘take’ on Luis Buñuel’s cinematic masterwork El ángel exterminador, there was one quotation missing that, had it appeared at the very start, would have made at least the first two acts make total sense: the Looney Tunes opening titles. Surprisingly – and, actually, it was a very pleasant surprise – The Exterminating Angel bears a much closer similarity to Powder Her Face than The Tempest; in terms of compositional technique, his new opera is clearly an extension of The Tempest, but its overall tone and attitude is very much more that of his debut opera. Yet the key word here is ‘similarity’: Powder Her Face was sarcastic but subtle and sophisticated, the bite of its wit matched by an undeniable aesthetic elegance and dazzling compositional ingenuity. Those are not words that suit The Exterminating Angel. From the outset, Adès seems to feel his characters are inhabiting a cartoon, the music often literally following their movements, replete with orchestral crashes to coincide with the character of Raúl being slapped about the face(!). The quotations Adès draws on – familiar fare: waltzes, Spanish outbursts, faux-Romantic piano variations, etc. – don’t so much flesh this out as act like musical Post-It notes to make quick and dirty allusive connections in lieu of something more considered and musically argued.

When not behaving like this, the music regularly took on a curious habit of treading water. It’s interesting to note Adès’ words in his conversation with Christian Arseni (originally published to coincide with the Salzburg première performances, and reproduced on this occasion): “When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C…”. Adès seems to have meant that very literally, producing great tracts of material that one can only meaningfully describe as ‘underscore’. Sometimes this material undergoes the chord progression processes that now typify his work, and in Act 1 in particular they were so aurally transparent that following their movement provided some interest, but elsewhere the music at times exhibited such neutrality that the singers felt entirely disconnected from it, as though skimming above the accompaniment’s surface. Read more

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Proms 2017: looking forward

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It’s that time again: today all the details of this year’s Proms season have been revealed. From a contemporary music perspective, there are 15 world premières – from Tom CoultRoderick WilliamsLaurent DuruptJulian AndersonBrian EliasJudith WeirPhilip Glass/Ravi Shankar (i know, just don’t), Michael GordonCheryl Frances-HoadJonathan DoveDaniel SaleebGerald Barry, Hannah KendallCatherine Lamb and Lotta Wennäkoski – and nine European/UK premières – from Harrison BirtwistlePascal DusapinAnders HillborgJames MacMillanMark-Anthony TurnageThomas LarcherAndrea Tarrodi, Erkki-Sven Tüür and Missy Mazzoli. Lots of men in those lists: women composers account for a quarter of the premières, which is an improvement on last year but otherwise not in any way an admirable statistic.

Aside from these, John Adams‘ 70th birthday year is being marked with five performances throughout the season (none of them premières, which is surprising, but in its own way a relief), there’s an event both titled and celebrating “The ‘Godlike Genius’ of Scott Walker” (a title that i fully endorse), the London Contemporary Orchestra will be teaming up with Actress for an evening of improvised who-knows-what alongside Exaudi, and there’s a sprinkling of recent works from, among others, Mark Simpson (a chance for London finally to hear The Immortal), David Sawer, Francisco Coll, Thomas Adès, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Louis Andriessen, Kate Whitley, Wolfgang Rihm and Rebecca Saunders. Another list with a lot of men.

The full run-down of contemporary music featured in this year’s Proms season is shown below (**=world première, *=European/UK première); the number of the concert – or the venue, when outside the Royal Albert Hall; PCM = Proms Chamber Music – is shown in square brackets, and clicking on the date will take you to the relevant page on the BBC website. i leave it up to you to decide whether the title of this blog post is accurate. Read more

Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 2)

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In the previous part, i remarked on Estonian music’s apparent distance from compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And while i also remarked that i don’t believe it’s happening in a vacuum, it is demonstrably removed from many of the attitudes that one tends to take for granted in western Europe, and one of the great positives of this is a surprisingly unconventional approach to the presentation of new music. In this respect, to say that the Estonian Music Days is no ordinary music festival is to put it absurdly mildly: they’re prepared to take real risks yet to do so in a relaxed, carefree way in which creative intent is matched with a sanguine attitude of “what happens, happens”.

Modestly unconventional was the ‘meditation’ conceived by Helena Tulve that preceded Thursday evening’s choral concert by Vox Clamantis (reviewed in Part 1). Lasting thirty minutes, this began as we were entering the Niguliste church, and at first was almost unnoticeable, the four performers (including Tulve and fellow composer Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes) sitting at the four corners of the entrance, each nonchalantly and very softly striking the edge of a glass bowl. What was very clear from the start was that, although aspects were indeterminate, the specific pitches used had been carefully selected (after the concert i noticed that every bowl had a sticker in the bottom giving its precise pitch, including cent deviations). The opening oscillated around the interval of a slightly microtonal minor third which persisted as the players began to move down the nave – joined by a fifth performer whose actions were equal parts music and dance – sliding marbles in their respective bowls, initially barely agitating them, creating a constantly-changing yet static pitch cluster. Having moved to stand at the four corners of the audience in front of tables filled with many more bowls, the pitch range now greatly expanded, still sounding indeterminate yet with a sense of finity, stretching the previously-established stasis. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from a few days in Tallinn, attending Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s annual celebration of contemporary music. Coming away from my first encounter with the EMD last year, and reflecting on the experience after, left me with mixed feelings. Estonian contemporary music is almost entirely unknown beyond its borders, with only Arvo Pärt and to a lesser extent Erkki-Sven Tüür being featured in concert programmes, both of them older generation composers (aged 81 and 57 respectively). It’s perhaps easy to understand, then, why the EMD almost exclusively focuses on Estonian music: if they didn’t, one might reasonably ask, then who would? So in this respect it’s worth pointing the finger in all directions away from Estonia, and asking why the interest doesn’t seem to be there. But there’s another aspect to this. The EMD’s attitude of introspective celebration – not so much an outlook as an ‘inlook’ – is perhaps partly responsible for this apparent external apathy. It’s easy to regard Estonian contemporary music, for the most part, as existing in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble, ostensibly drawing on few of the compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Politics has a significant part to play here; Estonia’s complicated history, veering back-and-forth between foreign rule and independence, has resulted, not surprisingly, in a determination to establish and project a coherent national identity, which in some respects lacks the organic sense of development of less bruised nations. This is not to suggest there’s anything inherently artificial about this identity, not at all, but it goes a long way to accounting for the introspection i mentioned, not simply a desire or an impulsion but a necessity to say, boldly, “this is who we are – this is what we sound like”. From an outsider’s perspective, then, a considerable adjustment is needed when approaching this festival in order to contextualise its very particular kind of music-making and not simply regard it as being disinterested in wider contemporary compositional thought. Writing in Tempo back in 2008 (the last time the festival was featured) Peter Reynolds pondered that “Estonian music has tremendous energy and vitality at the present time, but it is not so clear if this can continue to develop if the country continues to operate in a vacuum”.1 As i’ve indicated above and will elaborate upon below, i don’t believe that it is operating in a vacuum, but Reynolds’ point remains a valid and an important one. Read more

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Howard Skempton – Here’s the Tender Coming (World Première)

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Back to the Lent Series, and to a completely charming and surprisingly poignant little miniature by Howard Skempton. Here’s the Tender Coming is a Northumbrian folk tune, and Skempton’s arrangement of it dates from 2011, appropriately written for Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell plus the addition of a string quartet. Despite the cheeriness of the tune, the song is distinctly melancholic: the ‘tender’ of the title refers to the approaching ship—to all intents and purposes a prison—that, following the actions of the press gangs, would take away men by force to fight in the war against the French.

Here’s the tender coming, pressing all the men;
Oh dear hinny, what shall we do then?
Here’s the tender coming, off at Shield’s Bar,
Here’s the tender coming, full of men-o’-war.

The song is especially potent (and, one assumes, quite unusual) as it’s written from a woman’s perspective, capturing her utter desperation at the thought of losing, literally, the bread-winner of the family.

If they take thee, Geordie, who’s to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead.

Read more

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Marisa Hartanto – Rumble to the Past (World Première)

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For the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, i’m turning to Indonesian composer Marisa Hartanto, who studied composition as a postgrad at Royal Holloway. Her short orchestral work Rumble to the Past won the BBC’s Baroque Remixed postgraduate composing competition in 2012. The piece is a response to Purcell’s ‘Rondeau’ from his incidental music for the play Abdelazer (by Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to have a professional career as a playwright), well-known to most people from its central use in Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Read more

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