Premières

Proms 2011: Judith Weir – Stars, Night, Music and Light (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season commenced this evening with the world première of a new work from Judith Weir. Evocatively titled Stars, Night, Music and Light, Weir has drawn on three lines of text from the sixth stanza of George Herbert‘s poem ‘Man’, a poem that echoes the sentiments of Psalm 8, celebrating humankind as the apogee and centrepiece of God’s creation. Herbert’s lines are wonderfully deep, even a touch abstruse at times, but Weir’s sliver of text is beautifully simple, as is the music she’s composed for the occasion. Read more

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Proms 2008: Steven Stucky – Rhapsodies (World Première)

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In seven days’ time, the 2011 Proms season will be upon us, bringing with it a welter of new music. This year’s season promises no fewer than 12 world premières and eight UK premières, plus four ludicrously-titled “London premières”; once again, they’ll all be featured on 5:4, alongside one or two other interesting pieces. While the anticipation mounts, here’s one of the new works premièred in 2008’s Proms season, Rhapsodies by the American Steven Stucky. It received its first performance on 28 August by the New York Philharmonic (in their first visit to the Proms), directed by Lorin Maazel.

In some ways, Rhapsodies revolves around the woodwind; a solo flute begins the work, hopping restlessly at altitude, its appassionato material gradually accreting with the addition of the rest of the section. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a stylised dawn chorus, lightly punctuated by soft pizzicati and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bells. The cor anglais is the first instrument to be given melodic prominence, provoking energetic interjections from the muted brass, which eventually shift the piece in a slightly different direction, and usher in the upper strings. Throughout all of this, melody is literally everywhere, but the relentless intensity results in a rather delirious kind of texture music, the ear unable to stay focussed for more than a couple of moments on any particular line. A little under halfway through, the brass present an idea that holds things back for a while. As this dissipates, the strings finally come to the fore in an extended melody, backed up with spritely woodwind staccati beyond, reinforced by more distant bells. Read more

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Adam Duncan – Images Sombres (World Première)

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The final concert in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” series included the world première of Images Sombres by Adam Duncan, composed for the viola da gamba player Jonathan Manson.

A title such as Images Sombres, composed for viol, puts John Dowland in mind, but while Duncan’s sensibility might echo Dowland’s, his language lacks any overt hint of borrowing or pastiche. The work falls into five movements, beginning with a dark, raw melody that demonstrates the gamba’s unique sound, timbrally somewhere betwixt cello and double bass, but, due to its fretted fingerboard, sounding expressively distant. If anything, that makes Duncan’s leaden material sound, paradoxically, all the more expressive, as though the melody were forcing its way out against the instrument’s better judgement. Read more

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Matthew Bilyard – Impressions & Panayiotis Kokoras – Jet (World Premières)

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Third in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a recital given by the outstanding Dutch recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. The concert included two world premières: Impressions by Brit Matthew Bilyard and Jet by Greek composer Panayiotis Kokoras.

The preamble claims Impressions conjures up “images of bustling coastal towns”, but to my ear, Matthew Bilyard begins his piece evoking sounds and callings as of some mythical bird, rapidly alternating between repetitive motifs and lengthier bursts of melody. This interplay between noise and song is clearly a fundamental aspect of the work, and Bilyard brings considerable imagination to bear on it. He divides the piece into three, broadly equal, episodes, the first of which maintains a strident, declamatory tone throughout. The surface of the melody bristles with energy, one moment preoccupied with rapid staccato phrases, the next giving way to glissandi that pull the end of each phrase up or down. The second episode initially continues this train of thought, then almost immediately subjects the melodic line to an assortment of trills, flutters and other buzzing treatments. Read more

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Duncan Ward – Who Is Mr Grobe? (World Première)

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The second première in the “New Tunes on Old Fiddles” concert series was a work for viola d’amore and harpsichord, Who is Mr Grobe? by Duncan Ward, given its first performance last November by Catherine Mackintosh and Christopher Bucknall. Ward’s piece grew out of the apparent ‘mystery’ surrounding another piece in the concert programme, a Partita that may or may not have been composed by one Mr Grobe. The composer’s description of the work both whets the appetite—the use of figured bass in a new piece is a splendid idea—and also blunts it, when Ward speaks with glee about “new techniques” that are, of course, hardly as ‘new’ as he claims. Ward’s stated intention is to treat the duo as equals, promoting the harpsichord from being in an accompaniment role. Read more

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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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