Premières

Proms 2010: looking forward/back; Claude Vivier – Orion (UK Première)

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The Proms season is upon us once again, bringing with it the lively hope of new commissions and world premières. However, a cursory glance at the concert season makes for rather damp reading, the commissions going to an unadventurous gaggle including Mark-Anthony Turnage, David Matthews, Graham Fitkin, Jonathan Dove and Huw Watkins. That being said, new works from Robin Holloway, Tansy Davies and Tarik O’Regan should make for more interesting listening, along with UK premières from Gunther Schuller, Simon Holt, James Dillon and Bent Sørensen. If time allows, each new work and other concerts of note will be covered here on 5:4, together with a recording of the performance. First up is Gunther Schuller next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, here’s one of the highlights from last year’s Proms season, and a work by a favourite composer of mine, Claude Vivier. It’s the UK première of his Orion, a work that emerged following the composer’s extensive trip to the far east. With a title like Orion, it’s rather too easy to reach for an adjective like ‘cosmic’, but that word absolutely applies; its 13-minute duration has a broadness of scope that is remarkable and highly evocative. While other composers are sporadically brought to mind (Takemitsu, Messiaen, even a hint of Varése here and there), Vivier’s sound-world—as ever—is entirely his own, and it’s a ravishing, exquisite sound-world indeed, which makes it all the more surprising that his work persists in being so unknown. Admittedly, there are layers of obtusity in Vivier’s structures and textures that, for all their superficial beauty, can cause one to feel a little uncertain, even lost. But i for one am content to be taken into uncharted waters by one such as Vivier; it’s music worth a bit of trust and effort. Read more

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Interrobang: Steve Peters – The Webster Cycles

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Two months ago, i reported that my ensemble, Interrobang, was to perform Steve Peters‘ remarkable ambient work, The Webster Cycles. It’s a work that’s entranced me since 2008, when it was released on CD, more than 25 years after its original composition date. It gets its name from the fact that the musical material originates in the Webster dictionary; Peters has taken all words that include just the letters A to G (being musical notes), arranged them in alphabetical order, and given them to players as a musical score. The words are grouped into seven columns, according to their first letter, and the result looks like this (click to see full-size):
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Interrobang – works by Ryoji Ikeda, Simon Cummings/Charles Tournemire and Steve Peters

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know of my interest in the music of both Ryoji Ikeda and Steve Peters. Later this week i have the privilege of directing works by both of these composers, at the next concert given by my ensemble, Interrobang.

In the first half, we’ll be presenting the UK première of Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous Op. 1, one of his only works for instrumental forces (alongside Op. 2 and Op. 3, also for strings). Op. 1 has been played by Ensemble Modern, but doesn’t seem to have been taken up by other groups, which seems strange considering how lovely it is. Also in the first half will be the first performance of my own L’Ensemble Mystique (Book One), a suite of arrangements of music by Charles Tournemire, for chamber orchestra. Tournemire’s music is all based on plainsong, and the original chants will also be sung at the concert, putting my arrangements into context. The second half is entirely given over to the UK première of Steve PetersThe Webster Cycles, the CD of which came almost top in my Best EPs of 2008. It’s a mesmerising piece that takes words from the Webster Dictionary and turns them into abstract melodic fragments, which overlap each other in aleatoric fashion.

The concert takes place at 7.30pm on Thursday 6 May, in the Recital Hall of Birmingham Conservatoire. There will also be a repeat performance of The Webster Cycles the following day at St Martin’s in the Bullring, starting at 12.30pm. It would be great to see any readers of 5:4 at these concerts—do make yourselves known if you’re there!

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Interrobang

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Apologies for the rather lengthy pause here on 5:4; for the last couple of weeks i’ve been snowed under with numerous things. The most important of them is the début concert by my new contemporary music ensemble, Interrobang, taking place in the Recital Hall of Birmingham Conservatoire next Monday (1 February), at 7.30pm. The programme is as follows:

Kenneth Hesketh – Fra Duri Scogli for six players
Paul Dolden – The Vertigo of Ritualized Frenzy. Resonance #4 for bassoon and tape [World Première]
Joanna Bailie – Charh for six players
Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 5 “Amen” for reciter and five players
Joanna Bailie – Five Famous Adagios for clarinet and string trio
Paul Dolden – The Heart Tears itself Apart with the Power of its own Muscle. Resonance #3 for 10 strings and tape [UK Première]

So… a pretty demanding collection of pieces, but all of them highly engaging, and often pretty mind-blowing. i know 5:4 has a pretty international readership, but anyone not too far from Birmingham, do come along if you can—it’s going to be a spectacular occasion, and lots of fun! Tickets are £5.50 (concessions £3).

An article about Paul Dolden, planned a long time back, will be coming soon, as will—i hope—the first 5:4 podcast.

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Mack Willberg, Peter Maxwell Davies, Jan Sandström, Gabriel Jackson – The Christ Child (World Première) & George Baker

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A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!. In celebration of today, and continuing the tradition started here on 5:4 last year, here are highlights from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that took place yesterday at King’s College, Cambridge; the recording is of today’s repeat broadcast, which includes both of the final organ voluntaries. This year particular homage was paid to Sir David Willcocks, who turns 90 this month, with numerous settings and arrangements of his included in the service.

Near the start, a beautifully light and playful rendition of Ding! Dong! Merrily on high, splendidly arranged by the American Mack Wilberg; the ending has a distinct glint in its eye. Peter Maxwell DaviesOne star, at last was commissioned for the service 25 years ago, and returns sounding as fresh as ever. Max’s rendering of George Mackay Brown’s words is deeply thoughtful, tapping into both the awe and mystery as well as the more ominous elements at its heart; the question “What hand / Will take the branch from the dove’s beak?” is arguably more pertinent today than at the time of this carol’s prèmiere.

The Swede Jan Sandström (who famously studied with, among others, Brian Ferneyhough) is represented here in a hypnotic setting of the traditional German carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, sung here in Sandström’s native tongue; Prætorius’ original music is turned into clouds of notes shifting in space, finally coalescing into words—it’s a mesmerising performance. Read more

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HCMF 2008: Markus Trunk, Richard Barrett, John Cage

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Returning to the (more recent) archives, here are some interesting works taking a look back at the 2008 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Markus Trunk‘s Parhelion is most striking for its extreme delicacy; after a while, the prominent celesta actually starts to sound loud. The material appears as though formed from gas, its opening textures swiftly dissipating into soft whisps of chord that engage and beguile the ear. This sort of ostensible simplicity requires its own kind of virtuosity—a single note played out of place, or too loudly, would irrevocably rupture its surface—and Apartment House deliver Trunk’s vision with flawless clarity. There really isn’t enough music like this around at the moment. Trunk’s music also featured in the hands of plus-minus ensemble, who performed Raw Rows. At first, it seems to bears no resemblance to the other work, being a highly rhythmic working out of scalic patterns. In its own way, though, it ploughs an equally ascetic, single-minded furrow, the scales gradually being stretched out to the point where every note becomes a minutely significant event. This is material that, again, requires the players to demonstrate virtuosity of time and coordination in order for these sparse, staccato notes to be perfectly synchronised—it’s exciting that music of this kind should be simultaneously so simple and so complex. Read more

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Size isn’t everything (but it is something): Sorabji – Organ Symphony No. 2

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“Too many notes”, complained Emperor Joseph II to Mozart in response to his opera Le Nozze de Figaro; quite how he would have reacted to the concert that took place a little over a week ago in Glasgow University Chapel—featuring the Finale from Kaikhosru Sorabji‘s Second Organ Symphony, a single movement lasting a little over three hours—is anyone’s guess. Having said that, the temptation into which many people fall when speaking about Sorabji’s music is precisely to get hung up on size. Much is made of the colossal time spans his works occupy, and the virtuosic demands of the material, in addition to the composer’s well-known reclusiveness and apparently disagreeable manner towards—well, pretty much anyone really. Such preoccupations do little to promote an active engagement with the music itself, seeming to regard mere quantity as a feature of merit, confining Sorabji’s fascinating output within a small, narrow and woefully inadequate box of clichés, half-truths and irrelevances. Read more

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