Premières

HCMF 2017: Polish Radio Choir, Karin Hellqvist

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For the first twenty minutes of the concert given by the Polish Radio Choir in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday, i was forming the view that, though what we’d heard seemed at odds with his description, Dai Fujikura had nonetheless composed not only two of his best ever works, but better than much of the new choral music i’ve heard in the last few years. However, then Polish composer Agata Zubel came onto the stage to take a bow, and it transpired we hadn’t been told that the entire running order had changed. Only now, after this, did we actually hear the UK and world premières of Fujikura’s Zawazawa and Sawasawa respectively, and as it turned out they were a much more conventional and humdrum affair. Zawazawa was interesting for a time, a mixture of homophonic writing with a muscular delivery giving the impression of a single voice refracted or multiplied into a much larger manifestation. It was let down by an excess of repetition, but quite pretty at times. Sawasawa, by contrast, was thoroughly confused, mainly due to the addition of a marimba that at almost no point seemed connected or related to what the choir was doing. Or, indeed, relevant; often it seemed as though two entirely separate pieces were being played simultaneously. All very odd.
Wojtek Blecharz‘s Ahimsa, the UK première of which had actually begun the concert, explored a fascinating patchwork vocal texture made up of sonic swatches imbued with small, highly characterised motifs, acting like drops of ink being absorbed into a piece of tissue paper. Read more

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HCMF 2017: The Otheroom, Ensemble Modern + Arditti Quartet, zeitkratzer perform Kraftwerk

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Yesterday at HCMF was unusual, personally speaking, as for the most part it involved hearing music not for the first time. In the evening at St Paul’s Hall, Ensemble Modern and the Arditti Quartet gave the first UK performances of Carola Bauckholt‘s Laufwerk, Christopher Trapani‘s PolychROME and Brian Ferneyhough‘s 45-minute collection of ‘encounters’ with the music of Christopher Tye, Umbrations. Bauckholt’s work was new to me, and it worked well as a concert-opener, moving through a sequence of motoric episodes, each one an imitation then an elaboration of a collection of prerecorded sounds made by Bauckholt “when I was alone”. Though not particularly memorable, it was energising and fun. i’ve written at some length about the Trapani and Ferneyhough works following their premières in Witten earlier this year. Hearing PolychROME again was a real treat, and on the strength of this second hearing i came away feeling that the piece works rather like a trap. Behaviourally, it quite quickly feels settled, inasmuch as its ants-in-the-pants jerks and spasms, qualified by brief chord swells, becomes almost too familiar. The turning point – and in hindsight, it’s hard not to hear this as Trapani heralding the start of what’s discreetly about to happen – comes with a prominent horn passage, almost fanfaric. As the music continues, dryer and sharper than ever, one becomes aware that everything is becoming more and more shrill, like a blurred scream coming more and more into the sharpest of focus. And before you even know how you got there, the entire ensemble is shrieking at you, each one louder and more relentlessly cranium-drilling than the last, triggering in the hall a welter of hands being rushed to lightweight ears. Absolutely wonderful. As for the Ferneyhough, hearing it again surprisingly made it sound less rich and ‘romantic’ than it had seemed a few months ago. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Red Note Ensemble, Metal Machine Music, Aeolian

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Here we go again (deep breath)…

The opening concert of the 40th edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival immediately gave one pause for thought. What it wasn’t was a conventional wallop, a smack around the ears to wake us up out of our complacency, such as the one given by Jennifer Walshe and the Ardittis twelve months ago (from which i’m still not sure i’ve fully recovered). What it was though, at least in part, was a demonstration of the importance, potential and power of lyricism. If this sounds a bit slight in comparison, it isn’t, for in itself it’s another example of how open-minded HCMF has become under Graham McKenzie’s leadership. i have to confess that, prior to McKenzie taking over, my interest in HCMF had dwindled to nothing, due to how narrow and entirely predictable it had become. Somewhere along the way, the capacity for music to breathe and to provide scope for extended lyrical contemplation got essentially squeezed out. At last night’s opening concert in St Paul’s Hall given by Red Note Ensemble, there was almost a sense of defiance in the way one piece after another contributed to an atmosphere that, by its close, had become almost opulent. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Marcin Stańczyk – some drops… (UK Première)

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Some make their journeys alone.
Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings.
They connect and they divide. This may seem unpredictable.
But you can guess which paths they will take.
In the end, most of them follow their forebears.
It’s gravity, apparently.

While some composers persist in providing lengthy diegetical tracts to explain their compositions, at HCMF 2016 Polish composer Marcin Stańczyk provided the above text to accompany the first UK performance of his piece some drops… for double-bell trumpet and ensemble. As i’ve got to know the work better since that first encounter, these words have made more and more sense. Stańczyk initially places the solo trumpet at the back of the space, behind the audience (“Some make their journeys alone”). But as the work progresses, the soloist slowly walks forward, eventually joining up with the rest of the ensemble, which is itself continually reforming into different groups (“Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings./They connect and they divide”).

The lines that then suggest that the apparent unpredictability can be guessed are, i think, more subtle than simply suggesting that we as listeners can work out what’s going to happen and when. That certainly isn’t the case, and to my mind this is more about the nature of the material being explored throughout the piece which, as i said in my original review, seems to be “teetering at the cusp of letting loose something warm and familiar”. This seemingly comes from nowhere, emerging in the wake of the work’s opening minutes where a strange pulse is set up, with sporadic single-note chirps from left and right. Is it sinister? vague? preparatory? Whatever it is, it’s at something of a distance until around three and a half minutes in, when the weird sense of a (neo-)romantic musical urge starts to exert itself, nothing more than a rising 3-note motif that might be the beginnings of a melody. Stańczyk ever-so-gently reinforces it with a pizzicato double bass, but it ends up becoming lost in the haze that characterises this portion of the piece.  Read more

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HCMF revisited: Michael Cutting – I AM A STRANGE LOOP V (World Première)

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In just five days’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival gets going. That’s a big deal anyway, but this is its 40th edition, so there’s even more cause than usual for celebration. As a warm-up, i’m going to spend this week revisiting a few of the more memorable pieces from the last few festivals. The recitals given by pianist Richard Uttley have been for me some of the most exciting HCMF concerts in recent years, always presenting a thoroughly unpredictable collection of works embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP V.

It’s the second piece Cutting has written for Uttley that involves the use of a Fender Rhodes piano. The first, This is Not a Faux Wood Keyboard (premièred by Uttley at HCMF 2015), captured and harnessed the piano’s actions through use of a loop pedal. For I AM A STRANGE LOOP V, this premise has been expanded by utilising a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines. In each of the work’s four movements, Uttley is required to record portions of his performance, which are then played back while additional material is played. In practice, the two tape machines become second and third instruments in their own right, leading to interesting and unpredictable passages of 2- and 3-part semi-recycled counterpoint. Read more

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Proms 2017: the premières – how you voted

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i want to say thank you to all of you who took time to vote in this year’s 5:4 Proms polls. More of you than ever expressed your views about this year’s premières: a total of 914 votes were cast, an increase of 16% from last year.

However, the distribution of those votes was highly unbalanced. Obviously, some pieces are going to be more appealing than others, but the extent of the disparity was much greater than in previous years. For example, the works by Tom Coult and Harrison Birtwistle both elicited 100+ votes, while others barely managed twenty. That’s in part due to the difference in time – the poll for each successive première is available for less long than its predecessors, and this is the main reason why i keep the polls open for a fortnight after the Proms have finished – yet this clearly isn’t the whole story. Roderick Williams’ Là ci darem la mano was the third première, well over two months ago, but still only managed 31 votes. Whether that’s to do with the fact that Williams is less well-known/-regarded as a composer, or that it took place in an afternoon chamber concert rather than an evening event, or that the work was vocal and/or in a concert otherwise filled with Monteverdi, who knows? In some other cases the relative lack of votes seemed surprising. Mark-Anthony Turnage usually stirs up a fair amount of interest, yet his large-scale song cycle Hibiki mustered a mere 32 votes. Has his star finally waned? Whatever the reasons, the range of the disparity is considerable and worth noting.

For the last couple of years, the number-crunching formulae i’ve used on the polls data has taken the number of votes into account so as not to skew the results, and this year i’ve also included the work’s duration as a factor: if two pieces are equally liked or disliked, the longer of the pieces will prevail (this is already an important factor in the crunching that goes into producing my end of the year best album lists). And because if a job’s worth doing, etc. etc., i’ve used the actual duration of the piece –  i.e. from the start of the music to the first clap at the end – rather than the advertised duration. Apropos: for the most part the actual and advertised durations were pretty similar – i.e. ± a minute or so – the one exception being Gerald Barry’s Canada, which was a full four minutes fewer than threatened promised. Anyway, that’s enough preambular wafflestats, here are the results of how you all voted. Read more

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Proms 2017: Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce (World Première)

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After eight weeks of (for the most part) serious music-making, the Last Night of the Proms, quite reasonably, is primarily disposed to the aim of letting of steam and just having fun. For the contemporary composer chosen to get the evening going each year, the enormous sense of occasion – even more so than at the first night – must be so impossible to ignore (and why would you?) that one can’t help wondering to what extent they feel their creativity is being given an opportunity to shine or simply go through the expected motions. Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, from the 1995 Proms, remains a benchmark for ruthless originality in this concert, though it’s worth remembering that that particular piece was not a concert-opener, but occupied a prime position later in the concert. How nice it would be if the tradition of commissioning a world première for the last night could return to being a more major work in the concert rather than the amuse-bouche that the Proms seems to believe is sufficient. Perhaps then composers could do their own thing both more expansively and in the way they’d really like, although the experience and aftermath of Panic may well have scared off the Proms organisers for good on that score. (Apropos: i wonder what would shock people today?)

Nonetheless, one or two of the commissions in recent years – i’m thinking particularly of Tom Harrold’s Raze (2016) and Mark Simpson’s Sparks (2012) – have demonstrated the capacity and the courage to try and squeeze some imagination into their tiny sliver of the evening. And the same was true of last night’s curtain-raiser, Flounce, by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski. Read more

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